Robert Plant Takes Zeppelin Songs To New Places

Robert Plant knows his fans want Led Zeppelin and he’s happy to comply. On his own terms.

Photo: Evan Malcolm
Byron Bay Bluesfest, Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Tyagarah, Australia

Plant is on the road this summer with a new band, The Sensational Space Shifters, and he’s offering up fan favorites – rejiggered a bit to keep him excited about the music he’s been performing for more than four decades.

“You just hit it, give it a good bang,” Plant said. “It’s sort of like taking a can of wasps and giving it a good bang with a stick, and then opening the lid. It’s just like, ‘Ooooh!’ That makes me sing better and it makes me go back to not feeling that I’m a cliche, that I’m not actually just going through the motions. … This is obviously a gig but nonetheless you can still make it into a great pleasure dome for yourself, which is what I do.”

Plant is on tour with The Space Shifters through July. He’s hitting Red Rocks in Colorado and the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Ky., this week with stops in Atlanta, North Carolina and Boston before wrapping in Prospect Park in Brooklyn July 27 after successful runs in South America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

He and former Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, who ended the band when John Bonham died in 1980, incited public hope for a reunion when they appeared in London and New York together last year to promote “Celebration Day,” the film and music release of the band’s 2007 concert at London’s O2 Arena. The band testily deflected questions about a reunion.

“We rode on the crest of every wave for a period of time, us bunch of guys,” Plant said in a phone interview from San Francisco. “And sadly that couldn’t last because one of the guys vanished. And so what happens now is I’m a man of the world like so many people, like in his own way Ry Cooder and Peter Gabriel. … You pick up so much stuff along the way, you know, and you put it all together, you switch the power on and people smile and then they dance and then they sweat and then they scream, and it’s either that or sit on a stool and sing George Jones songs.”

The tour effectively marks the end of a seven-year Americana period for Plant that started with Raising Sand, his 2007 Grammy Award-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett, and continued through his most recent work with girlfriend Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Band of Joy.

The Space Shifters turn it into something of an abrupt ending.

“I went back to the U.K. and I said to my pals, ‘Let’s go urban, let’s go British, let’s go African. Let’s turn the volume up and let’s just stick the fire underneath it again,’“ Plant said.

As the name suggests, the band brings a spacey, psychedelic and sometimes improvisational quality to Plant’s back catalog. The group consists of four players Plant used before his Americana period – guitarists Justin Adams and Liam Tyson, bassist Billy Fuller and John Baggott on the keys – and recent additions, drummer Dave Smith and Julmeh Camara, a specialist in traditional African instruments from Gambia.

Once the run ends, Plant may return to the studio for a follow up to “Band of Joy.” He says he’s already completed an album’s worth of material with Miller and will soon take 20 songs with him to Los Angeles where he’ll begin work with a producer he coyly would not name.

Photo: AP Photo / Wong Maye-E
Timbre Rock And Roots Festival, Fort Canning Park, Singapore

“I’m going to make an amalgam of all these various elements I’ve been creating, then I’m going to get a guy who has a bag of fairy dust and sort of chuck it over the whole thing so that it melds together,” Plant said. “I need a personality that runs right through the whole lot and I think I know exactly who is going to do it, and how and when. And then I’ll go back and be an archaeologist on the Welsh border for a little bit.”