Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, St David's Hall, Cardiff
Fenech-Soler, Thekla, Bristol
Not as exciting as Led Zeppelin, but even at 62 this lion in dad's denim still knows how to work a crowd
Sunday 31 October 2010
The Aslan of hard rock roars once more.
Robert Plant is blessed with a voice which, whether by decades of direct association or because of some intrinsic quality (it's too late now to tell) seems to resonate with secret truths and esoteric mysteries. From anyone else, "When I get older, settling down/Will you come down to the sea?" (the "When I'm Sixty-Four"-like number from his 29 Palms album) would be unforgivably trite. But Plant could sing "Dem Bones" and we'd still be asking, "Ah, but what does it really mean?"
The leonine Led Zeppelin leader, his dad-like denims failing to de-sexify him completely even in his seventh decade, has – while the world wonders whether the 2007 reunion of his most famous band will ever be repeated – decided instead to revive an even earlier act. This was the Band of Joy, with whom he gigged around the Midlands before Jimmy Page invited him to join up with the rump of the Yardbirds.
It features no original members, but a number of seasoned old pros such as Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, and the project is a return to roots in every sense. The sextet specialises in sunny, Seventies-style harmonic country-rock with strong infusions of blues, folk and gospel, using such archaic instruments as a washboard, upright bass, pedal steel and what looks, from a certain angle, like an elephant's leg of kebab meat hanging behind the drum kit.
Their album, despite the handicap of its truly appalling desktop publishing graphics, is flying out of the shops. "You know you've made it," he wryly states, "when your album is a Tesco Special ...." It's dominated mainly by covers dredged from Plant's exhaustive knowledge of American traditional music, as is the live show, with added non-album tracks like "Twelve Gates to the City" by Blind Boy Fuller. Why were so many bluesmen blind? Is it like piano tuners? Does the loss of sight make you more receptive to 12-bar song structures?
It's all wholesome, tasty fare, if not quite as exciting as Page stuttering into "Communication Breakdown", Bonzo bashing into "Kashmir" or JPJ doing whatever JPJ does. We do, however, get countrified reworkings of a scattering of Zeppelin tracks including "Tangerine", "Houses of the Holy" and an everyone-on-their-feet encore of "Rock and Roll".
And, despite the deceptively casual stance of a tall man crouching, Plant knows how to work a crowd, from his sword-fencer's facility with a mic stand to his cleverly localised banter. The man who recorded some of his best-known work in the Welsh hillsides acknowledges applause with a "diolch yn fawr", reminisces about the original BOJ opening for Jeff Beck in Llanelli in 1965, jokes about one song originating from "the Delta of Machynlleth" and explains "Misty Mountain Hop" as "a flippance in Snowdonia ... it's a bit like a bustle in a hedgerow".
Can he still hack it at 62? He seems as relieved as anyone to find that he can. As he says: "I haven't needed the defibrillators yet ...."
One of the Holy Grails of my vinyl-collecting habit is to track down a hilariously appalling single by Linda Jardim called "Energy in Northampton", released in 1979 by the council elders with the intention of boosting civic pride and promoting the town's potential, and based on the premise that aliens beamed down there are amazed by what they find. Type "Energy Northampton Anglia" into YouTube and it's the top result. You'll thank me later.
In reality, apart from all of Bauhaus and one of Steps, Northampton hasn't given much to popular culture. Perhaps that's why Northants electro newcomers Fenech-Soler have opted for a name that suggests a collaboration between a tall-eared Saharan fox and an attacking midfielder from the stylish France team in the 1982 World Cup (although, to be fair, one of the quartet actually is called Daniel Soler).
Fenech-Soler, inset below, first came to most people's attention when singer Ben Duffy guested on Groove Armada's sublime "Paper Romance", but their own single "Lies", playlisted by Radio 1 and just about everywhere else, is an equally persistent earworm. "Demons" is lined up to follow from an impressive debut album which they play in its entirety tonight.
In the bowels of Das Boot moored on the Bristol waterfront, their Klaxons-meets-Calvin rave-pop reaches sphincter-shaking volume, and Duffy, Holly-oaks-pretty in his low-slung V-neck and designer stubble, gamely yells "Come on, Bristol!" when all but a couple of hundred locals are two squares of the A-Z away watching the Manics.
Over Duffy's shoulder, bathed in red or blue light, are three mirrorballs sticking out from the back wall, spinning on horizontal axes rather than suspended vertically. I know a metaphor when I see one: the tropes of traditional dance culture, with added lateral thinking. That's Fenech-Soler, right there. Maybe those aliens had a point.
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