For a Led Zeppelin reunion refusenik, Robert Plant does perform an awful lot of material by the group who defined seventies rock in all its magnificence and occasional self-indulgence.
More than 50 per cent of the set at his first UK concert in over a year came from the Zep oeuvre. Crucially though, he cherry-picked from the mellower tranche of their repertoire – he sounded particularly fine on the epochal “Going To California” – and eschewed the bluster of 2007’s Celebration Day at the O2.
The opener “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was a case in point, as he caressed the folk song Zep learned from Joan Baez and longingly elongated the last “Home” in its lyric. Plant was indeed happy to be back on British soil, greeting the locals with “hey, Brizzle!” and riffing on “I was never a black guy” before taking “Spoonful”, the Charley Patton by way of Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf blues standard, from the Mississippi Delta back to West Africa with the inspired addition of Juldeh Camara on riti, the one-string fiddle of Senegal and The Gambia.
The Gambian griot is Plant’s ace in the hole, a wonderful vocal and instrumental foil on “The Enchanter”, “Black Dog” and “Four Sticks”, and the musician whose presence adds another dimension to the so appropriately-named Sensational Space Shifters. Indeed, they still play the cheekily autobiographical “Tin Pan Valley” and the eerie “Another Tribe” – its “I want to reach out there across the great divide” motif so apposite on the night of the Syria vote in Parliament – from 2005’s Mighty ReArranger album, made by their previous incarnation as Strange Sensation.
With two locally-based musicians in the band, the guitarist Justin Adams, sublime on slide and myriad other instruments, and keyboard wizard John Baggott, whose loops reinvented the ominous “Friends” from Led Zeppelin III, the mood was often convivial but never complacent. Following the closing salvo of “What Is And What Should Never Be” and the inevitable “Whole Lotta Love”, even the more sedate sections of the balcony rose as one.
The only caveat might be the lack of new material but Plant has been more prolific than all his contemporaries and probably has something up his sleeve. He even encored with the ballad “Big Log”, his best-known solo hit, pointedly stressing “there is no turning back” before welcoming back Camara for a gallop through Zep’s “Rock And Roll”. “Not a hobbit in sight. Not one,” as Plant had joked earlier.
Robert Plant presents Sensational Space Shifters at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on Monday 2nd of September), at Manchester Apollo 29th of October and at London’s Royal Albert Hall, part of Bluesfest 2013, on 31st of October.