With Robert Plant, The Song Never Remains The Same
By Stephen Humphries
It’s the last question of the interview. The one that this reporter has been dreading to ask Robert Plant. After a gulp of breath, the words tumble out: “On the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin, what is your fondest memory of the chemistry and camaraderie between the four of you?” There’s a second’s pause over the phone line and then the singer starts to laugh . . . and laugh . . . and laugh.
Until then, it had been going so well.
Plant’s publicist forewarned that the singer may feign memory loss in response to this question. (That might have been preferable to the laughter.) The rock star, who plays a show at the Orpheum Friday night, is often reticent to talk about the colossus of a band he fronted between 1968 and 1980. He’s not one for nostalgia. Plant articulated that ethos in the 2005 song “Tin Pan Valley” when he sang, “My peers may flirt with cabaret/some fake the ‘rebel yell’/Me — I’m moving up to higher ground/I must escape their hell.”
That desire not to be defined by the past, coupled with an innate artistic curiosity, fuels the singer’s intrepid post-Zeppelin career. Plant is more comfortable talking about “Carry Fire,” the critically acclaimed album he recently made with his longtime band, the Sensational Space Shifters.
“I was just carrying on in a jagged line using the musical ideas that we had started to develop and then taking them on a stage further,” says Plant, who produced the record. “Just bit by bit piecing something together that is evocative and has some kind of mystic lope to it.”
Plenty of artists talk about changing up every album, but few do so to the extent of Plant — each of his 11 solo records is distinctly different. “Carry Fire” exemplifies his pioneer spirit. Its songs find liminal connections between Appalachian bluegrass, Saharan blues, Celtic folk, Arabian trance, West Coast psychedelic rock, and British trip-hop. The band’s five musicians aren’t called shape shifters for nothing. Several songs also showcase guest viola player Seth Lakeman, one of Britain’s biggest folk music stars.
“He really relished the idea of moving over a step from his characteristics that he normally employs when he does his own shows,” Plant says. “He really did add something to the tracks, never more intensely than the track ‘Carry Fire.’”
The title track’s smoldering sensuality flares up with a Lakeman solo whose scorching effect lingers like a vapor trail.
“He’s still coming up with new material that’s as exciting as something that was written in 1969,” enthuses Lakeman, who has since been recruited as a touring member of the Sensational Space Shifters and will also open the shows by playing his new album “Ballads of the Broken Few.” “He hasn’t got a huge ego. He’s one of the hugest rock stars in the world. When you’re hanging out with him he’s like one of the lads having a drink.”
The album features another distinguished guest: Chrissie Hynde. The charismatic leader of the Pretenders (one of the few people who can rock a leather jacket as stylishly as Plant) duets on “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” a ballad about a long-distance relationship that was popularized by the Beach Boys and Ritchie Valens.
“There’s a sort of wistful nature to the song,” Plant says. “It needed somebody else, the other side of the romance, to come into it as almost an answer to this worry and concern about whether or not this is going to work. She’s got such fantastic character in her voice. You never get one demi, semi quaver that’s not necessary.”
During “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” Plant deploys one of the ejector-seat wails that were his stock-in-trade with Led Zeppelin. When the singer turns 70 this summer, his powerful throat won’t have any trouble blowing out all the candles on his birthday cake. But these days the vocalist’s most dynamic range lies in his ability to convey intimate emotions. On “A Way with Words,” Plant picks at the memory scars of a failed relationship and lets confessional asides hang in the air. The surprise of “Carry Fire” is how often this most progressive of artists looks back, for once, to take stock of his life now.
“It’s quite cathartic,” he says. “It’s me, surveying the scene that I’m in. I guess the adventures in romance, there’s a great sort of flourish and great harvest. Sometimes the harvest has many colors. I think about Roy Orbison or even George Jones or Charlie Rich — great, white singers in that great kind of melodramatic, romantic character.”
Plants also revisits a different kind of past — world history — on several protest songs including “Carving up the World Again . . . a Wall and Not a Fence.” The lyrics contextualize the global backlash against today’s immigrants and refugees as a cyclical phenomenon that arises out of nationalism.
‘He’s still coming up with new material that’s as exciting as something that was written in 1969. He hasn’t got a huge ego. He’s one of the hugest rock stars in the world. When you’re hanging out with him he’s like one of the lads having a drink.’
“I don’t know how old a country’s got to be before it stops being a pathway or destination for people who are on the move. The United States encouraged more and more central and Eastern Europeans, who were already being hounded out in different eras and periods of time, to come and populate this magnificent land,” muses the singer. “People are on the move for their own betterment and their own opportunity. Nobody said that the world was sacrosanct for any group of people to say, ‘This is mine, keep out.’”
In 2016, Plant joined Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and the Milk Carton Kids on the Lampedusa tour, a revue-style benefit for refugees worldwide.
“For me it was the charm and the absolute beauty of those voices. Steve Earle’s records quite often don’t do him justice as a live singer. He’s got such a great tone,” Plant marvels. “I’m not part of that movement of great musicians and singers so, for me, it was just such a trip.”
He’s being modest. Plant made a splash in the Americana music world with “Raising Sand,” the 2007 blockbuster he recorded with Alison Krauss, and his 2010 alternative-country album “Band of Joy.” During his career, Plant has pulled off more unpredictable moves than Bobby Fischer. What he hasn’t done is reunite Led Zeppelin for a tour, though he did organize a one-off show for charity in 2007. But his reluctance to embrace nostalgia shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of pride in what he achieved with bassist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page, and drummer John Bonham. After all, he includes radically rearranged Zeppelin songs in his shows.
Once Plant stops laughing at how he can’t get through any interview without his past getting dredged up, his voice softens.
“Some of those fantastic festivals in the early ’70s were magnificent because we were playing under remarkable circumstances,” he reminisces. “You fell afoul to all sorts of technical issues and stuff but we just played through the whole thing and just laughed! That’s what it was about. Kick ass, until it became a slog. So the early days were something that I really relished as four guys almost bending down against some invisible weather.”
Now, as then, Robert Plant still tosses back his curls, uses the microphone stand as a fulcrum, and changes the weather inside concert halls with vocal squalls. But he’s less interested in stardom than just being a part of the fraternal bond of the Sensational Space Shifters.
“You can’t just turn up and become ‘that guy.’ It’s a lonely place to be for a singer to be just there, waiting to get in the way of musical passages. How do I spend my time during a two-hour set? Well, a lot of the time I am watching and listening to what my brothers are doing.
“It’s a great affinity that we have. We keep it going because everybody does other things when they feel like it and so will I. Who knows what’s around the corner?”