Robert Plant And The Sensational Space Shifters. Belfast Ulster Hall, 23 November 2014.
As frontman for Led Zeppelin, arguably the greatest, and certainly the most celebrated hard rock band of all time, Robert Plant has played some memorable gigs during his career. Shows at London’s Earls Court in 1975, and New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1973 may garner significant plaudits, however for some, a show at Belfast’s Ulster Hall in March 1971 holds a special significance. For it here on 5th March, that Led Zeppelin aired publically for the first time ever what would go on to become their most famous song; ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Over four decades may have passed since then, but tonight Robert Plant was back in the same venue with his band ‘The Sensational Space Shifters’ to play to a sold out crowd as part of his current UK tour.
Photo: John Kerr
Setting the scene, with the house lights down, a series of looped keyboard notes enchanted the audience into a serene state of seduction, as a lone Robert Plant slowly but purposefully ambled onto the stage. With hand’s clapping unhurriedly in prayer like gesture, and with hair tied back behind his head, he appeared less golden god rock star and more like an elder Zen master come to teach his charges. With band behind him, he approached the microphone and softly uttered the words “close the door, put out the light”. It was a haunting introduction, and as those opening lines from Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter’ gave way to an electrifying version of the song, the audience were enthralled.
It was a stunning opener, and in keeping with Plant’s current musical aesthetic, was the first of many sideways glances at Led Zeppelin tracks that would appear later in the set. A couple of blues standards followed, in covers of Fats Domino’s ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ and Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’. While the former was as similarly spellbinding as the opener, with the trance state only being broken by occasional violent musical stabs, the later gave hints at Plant’s past. While the high pitched wails of old may have been, for the most part replaced by more measured tones, he still occasionally lets loose, as his punctuating shrills attested.
Speaking to the crowd for the first time he teasingly hinted at the significance of the venue adding “I know that I’ve been here before, I just don’t remember what happened”. A smattering of tracks from latest album Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar’ followed, with the “1920’s Mississippi Delta” blues of ‘Turn It Up’ and a strikingly tasteful ‘Rainbow’ effortlessly slotting into a set that was both epic and dramatic.
With a change of pace, the band stripped to a three piece (augmented by keyboardist John Baggott) of Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson on acoustic guitar and Justin Adams on mandolin, for a truly sublime take on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going To California’. As beautiful as it was tender, it was an early highlight of the evening. Another Led Zeppelin classic in ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ followed shortly after, and although its softer verses were exquisite, Plant’s ear-piercingly high-pitched ‘baby baby’ adlibs proved that he’s still capable of letting rip into the upper register when the mood takes him.
The Sensational Space Shifters meanwhile, demonstrated just what an impressive ensemble they are themselves during various points of the show. Where the extended workout of Howlin Wolf’s ‘No Place To Go’ unleashed a primal rhythmic stomp, courtesy of drummer Dave Smith, ‘Little Maggie’ featured a star turn from Juldeh Camara, who throughout the evening added colour with single string fiddle and occasional vocals. Justin Adams meanwhile showed just why he is Plant’s musical foil, with a knowingly hammy theatrical rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the middle of set centrepiece ‘Fixin’ To Die’. Not to be outdone, the acoustic picking of Tyson would have stolen the show during a transcendent ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, were it not for Plant’s simply stunning movingly fragile vocal delivery.
The main set ended with a reimagined ‘Whole Lotta Love’, which was introduced with teasing snippets from Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’, before the band launched into the song and Jimmy Page’s infamous five note guitar riff. It was a storming performance, and peaking with the audience, the band took their bows to rapturous applause. Returning to the stage for an encore, and a final blistering run through a revised take on Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll, Plant thanked the audience for “grooving with us this evening”.
Although he has a vast and varied catalogue that explores many musical genres, from rock to folk to bluegrass and world music, it is perhaps understandable that it is with the music of Led Zeppelin that Robert Plant is most closely associated. The musical stylings, the band and the times may have changed, but with his commanding stance at the microphone, ingrained rock star moves, and unmistakable voice, there could be little doubt tonight, that this was indeed the one and only Robert Plant. The 1971 Ulster Hall show may forever live on in legend, but those here tonight witnessed something sensational. It’s incredible to think that one gig that took place forty-three years ago in this very hall could still be being talked about today. Perhaps tonight will live on similarly. Only time will tell. And it makes me wonder…