Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters review – rock god reconnects with Celtic roots

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
The Led Zeppelin frontman tells stories of his time living in Wales but draws sounds from all over the map: Middle Eastern guitars, American blues and techno moods

As rock-god gigs go, tonight’s show in this postmodern Cardiff theatre is a “down-home” affair for Robert Plant – that’s the term he uses before a crowd just shy of 2,000. Tomorrow he’s in roaring-lion mode at London’s O2 Arena with Van Morrison, but this date in Wales’ capital reveals a fondness for his Celtic connections. He begins with a warm “noswaith dda” (good evening), reveals he used to live up the road (Monmouthshire locals regularly mention bumping into him at the chip shop) and happily pours into tales of his times with bygone Welsh rockers. These include hazy nights with 70s band Man. “They had a house that structurally looked sound, but inside the walls were covered in Bacofoil,” he explains. “Which they used to hide hashish in, of course.”

Despite the familiar tone, Plant is a boy of bigger, global visions, as tonight’s ambitious gig reminds us. He’s introduced by tribal chants, Berber drums and a fantastic light show – all reflective of the deep, dusty musical atmospheres of this 13-song set. Then there’s the Middle Eastern guitar figures of newer, sweltering songs, like his latest album’s title track, Carry Fire, a lament to the broken relationship that influenced that album, with the American musician Patty Griffin. “I was a stranger here inside your promised land,” he sings, “that turned me inside out.”

Beautiful beast ... Robert Plant.
Beautiful beast ... Robert Plant. Photograph: Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

Now in his eighth decade, Plant has inevitably calmed his stage theatrics: there’s some mild dry-humping of a microphone stand and light shamanic chest-beating with a tambourine, but his shiny shirt remains buttoned. His voice, however, is still a beautiful beast – and delivers lots of Led Zeppelin songs tonight. On Ramble On and Rain Song, he’s as tender as someone singing a lullaby. When he rises to a huge, melodic wail on Babe, I’m Going to Leave You, you check your socks in case they’ve been knocked off.

Plant wallops us with other bluesy numbers about leaving women – the kind male rockers somehow get away with – and grimmer, darker songs about death. When the Levee Breaks sounds colossal tonight, as does a defiantly dark version of Leadbelly’s The Gallows Pole. What’s striking is how fresh and alive Plant’s band make these well-known songs sound. Folk violinist Seth Lakeman – whose band are supporting Plant on this short tour – adds vivid, droning energy with his powerfully scraped strings. Synthesiser operator John Baggott – a collaborator with Portishead and Massive Attack – adds huge, powerful atmospheres that sound newly plucked from techno 12-inches. They never feel forced, but perfectly in place.

The band show some frustration that this crowd doesn’t clap, dance or whoop along loudly enough, but then it is largely comprised of people with bus passes. At one point Plant even shouts: “Let yourself go!” They finally do when Fixin’ To Die roars through the venue – guitarist Justin Adams going full Wilko Johnson for his solo spot – and even more so when the set finishes with a huge, electronics-fuelled romp through Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog. When it ends, Plant goes to the end of the row to take a bow, leaving his brilliant band in the spotlight. “Diolch,” (thanks) he says humbly, a human god to the last.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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