Wednesday, July 09, 2014

WWDBD? goes to Montreux: Rodrigo y Gabriela/Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters

© Simon Poulter 2014
It's quite something to be in close proximity to true music royalty once, but to be virtually touching the toes of the ultimate rock god for the second time in two weeks is something to treasure.

Just a fortnight after seeing Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters at the venerable Bataclan in Paris, I'm perched up against the stage perimeter rail at Montreux's Auditorium Stravinski  awaiting the arrival of a Jazz Festival veteran since the days of "'some' band" he will later refer to.

But first, however, it's the turn of Rodrigo y Gabriela. The Mexican couple - once described as "lovers on stage as well as off" - have become summer festival favourites for their frenetic act that sits somewhere between performance art, street theatre and a rock show with Spanish guitars, combining Latin, baroque, classical guitar and, bizarrely, heavy metal in the process.

A couple since their teenage years in Mexico City (though no longer a romantic item), Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero forged their Metallica-influenced turn in Dublin, of all places, playing pubs and busking on Grafton Street a decade ago, before getting their break on the festival circuit (as well as providing the Breaking Bad pilot with Tamacan) and commencing an ascendancy that has taken in arena tours and a Main Stage appearance at this year's Glastonbury this year.

Picture courtesy of the Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

Tonight is their second appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and it's clear to see why they've been asked back. Like the appearance of Quinn Sullivan with Buddy Guy on Sunday night, the instrumental duo's show transcends the novelty it could so easily be branded.

Opening with The Soundmaker from their recent 9 Dead Alive album, they have the audience charmed from the outset, newcomers grinning from ear-to-ear at the pulsating vibrancy of their well-honed act.  With Quintero acting as the rhythm section and Sanchez performing lead, they contrive to fill the Stravinski with some serious noise, not to mention some literally breath-taking guitar playing from both.

When given the opportunity, Sanchez demonstrates his party-piece of playing slide guitar with a beer bottle - not something you often see on a nylon-stringed Spanish acoustic, as well as playing to his rock penchant by strumming through a wah-wah peddle. It is is strenuous stuff, with with Sanchez noticeably struggling to catch his breath when he addresses the audience someway through the show.

Despite the label "Latin", the pair draw extensively from their heavy rock origins, delivering sterling covers of Rage Against The Machine's Bombtrack and Metallica's Orion (Sanchez regularly striking the James Hetfield pose throughout the evening - foot on stage monitor, head rocking back and forth).  Later, they indulge their inner rock stars further by launching a medley that begins, brazenly, with a bit of Stairway To Heaven and ends in an absolutely brilliant take on Radiohead's Creep, with Sanchez taking to lead vocals and having absolutely no problem getting the crowd to sing along with "I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo". An exhilarating performance.

Picture courtesy of the Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

As one set finishes with rock-influenced latin music, so the next set commences with latin-tinged folk-rock. The appearance of the mightily-bearded Skin Tyson - formerly of Britpop scousers Cast - with an acoustic guitar, arpeggiating in fluid Spanish, masks the fact that this is just the intro to a sumptuous version of Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You, the Joan Baez song Led Zeppelin covered on their debut album.

The surprise of Robert Plant opening with the song isn't so much the fact he's dipping into the Zeppelin oeuvre from the beginning, but that Tyson couldn't look any different from his Cool Britannia days, with his enormous Klondike miner's lawn of facial hair that threatens to foul his guitar strings.

I jest, of course. For someone who has appeared to strongly distance himself from any further Led Zeppelin reunions, preferring not "to bathe in the tepid bathtub of old hits", as he told Uncut earlier this year, Plant's preference for opening the shows on this tour with a cut from the first Zeppelin album is curious.

Not that I am complaining - far from it. For the second time in as many weeks I'm hearing a master of his craft at work with the very material that took him there to begin with.

"I was first here in 1970, so I'm told," Plant deadpans as the crowd recovers from hearing a song that introduced the world to his stratospheric vocals. 44 years on, however, he appears to be downplaying the deity bestowed upon him, Page, Jones and Bonham. But as the show will later attest, he needn't bother.  

The abrupt end to Led Zeppelin in 1980 following Bonham's death (the result of 24-hour binge of vodka shots), could have driven Plant to doing a Marlene Dietrich ("I retired in 1980," he jokes). Instead he has ploughed his own furrow, first with big-haired MTV hits like Big Log, and more recently his pursuit of Americana, including the acclaimed collaboration with Allison Krauss, Raising Sand

Solo albums like Band Of Joy and The Mighty Arranger have placed him in similar realms of progressive world music as Peter Gabriel, a musical excursion, he says, that has taken him "up the Mississippi to Chicago, across to North Africa and back down through San Francisco before turning left at Led Zeppelin".

Plant's love of blues and Americn roots music infuses the show from start to finish, but he doesn't rely on nostalgia: with the Sensational Space Shifters also including serious sessioneers like prodigious blues/world music lead guitarist Justin Adams, sometime Massive Attack keyboard player John Baggott, Portishead alum Billy Fuller on bass, jazz drummer Dave Smith and Gambian musician Juldeh Camara playing the ritti, a one-stringed African violin - we have before us an eclectic and dynamically current outfit.

Perhaps surprisingly, no one genre dominates, a reflection of Plant's solo canon dipping its toes in the Mississipi at both ends while spanning a rainbow of modern and traditional influences, often in the same song. Tin Pan Valley, from The Mighty Arranger, is the perfect example, following the opening trip down Memory Lane by strolling into a blissful mix of trippy electronica and choppy metal riffs which triggers Adams to bop around the stage like a child unleashed on a birthday party already high on cake and Pepsi.

The Willie Dixon-written, Howlin' Wolf-recorded Spoonful provides further opportunity for Plant and his band to explore the cultural diversity of their respective talents, taking a basic Chicago blues  and adding electronica blips and squeaks to retrace the steps of several generations of African migration. Later on, Bukka White's Fixin' To Die is reinvented as a post-modern skiffle, the original having been a major influence on the early Led Zepp slide blues.

Plant's enjoyment of the musical portmanteu appears early on in The Enchanter, as Adams plays his Les Paul as an electric sitar before evolving into something drawn from the superheated Mojave Desert. It's indicative of the way Plant and this band feed off each other, blending old and the new, familiar and the unfamiliar, diverse and the conventional. Rainbow, from the forthcoming Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar, nods Plant towards the earliest rock'n'roll, with its skiffle-like chug, while another "old" new song, Little Maggie, finds Tyson playing an electric banjo  - itself not a standard rock instrument - amid a further wonderful melee of the intercontinental and cross-cultural.

Between songs Plant is relaxed and immensely funny. Given his place in rock music's pantheon, he is at total, self-depreciating ease. He is notoriously one of rock's most affable individuals, known to fly from all over the world to see his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers play on a Saturday, and even once made Danny Baker a member of Led Zeppelin while at the 1992 Q Magazine awards (Baker resigned 25 minutes citing "musical differences"). It should be remembered that Baker is a radio presenter. Plant remains a world famous rock star.

Picture courtesy of the Montreux Jazz Festival © 2014 FFJM - Lionel Flusin

At 65 the golden mane may be greying, along with the goatee, giving Plant the look of some Middle Earth king; the voice, too, may also have dropped an octave from the primal scream of its Zeppelin heyday, but it remains eerily distinctive, and as sharp as that which took a blues fan and his Black Country drummer compatriot to London, where he met two of the capital's most feted session players before embarking on a 12-year journey that invented heavy rock. And, pretty much, wrote the rule book on how rock musicians should conduct themselves.

Despite his apparent coolness to getting Led Zeppelin back together again, and as the opening number demonstrates, Plant has no qualms about making use of his former "band from the Dark Ages" and its material. With Roger Waters performing Pink Floyd songs, you always get a sense of a bitter edge about it. But for Plant, it is clear that including Zeppelin songs is an opportunity to evolve them.

The one exception is What Is And What Should Never Be, which is recreated pristinely, highlighting in the process just how subtle a heavy rock band Led Zeppelin were, with its light and shade of both guitar playing and Plant's crooning.

With Tyson and Adams playing the Page and Jones part on acoustic guitar and 12-string mandolin respectively, Plant delivers an luxuriantly intimate version of Going To California, staying faithful to the hippy ideal originally conveyed on  Led Zeppelin IV. More surprises follow, when a grooving North African jive draws out the lyric "Hey-hey mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove" before Black Dog explodes into full life.

© Simon Poulter 2014
The ruse is repeated later on, when Adams' plays out the opening riff of Muddy Waters' Hoochie Coochie Man, before Plant almost casually lets out "You need coolin', baby, I'm not fooling'" and Whole Lotta Love sends the Space Shifters' two guitarists power chording about the stage as if let off some invisible leash. As Zeppelin used to do, they even include Bo Diddley's Who Do You Love. Given that the set list is identical to that performed in Paris and at Glastonbury since then, it's a safe bet that the entire band loves going nuts night after night to this, one of rock's greatest ever segways.

The same can be said for the finale of Rock and Roll, but even on this Plant plays the diversity card, with Camara's ritti turned into the lead guitar to stunning affect, helping lift the last members of the audience who'd been resisting any kind of physical movement hitherto to frug about the Stravinski wildly.

With anyone else of Plant's degree of music royalty, that would be it. Off stage to be tended to by the army of lickspittles most rock stars surround themselves with. But no: the decidedly unaloof vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC is back out to inform the audience that Brazil are losing 6-0 to Germany. And then he's back out again to say it's 7-0. And then back out to update us with the final score - 7-1.

Rock stars go out of their way to be moody and unapproachable. It's what made them rock stars in the first place. Detachment is their costume, the stage's edge their moat. True stars are those who, should you run into them in the street strike you dumb, mouth agape like a basking crocodile, their presence sucking the very oxygen from your lungs.

With Robert Plant, however, one suspects a different reaction. After two close(ish) encounters with him I'm reasonably confident that if I invited the former lead singer of Led Zeppelin for a pint, he'd be good enough to accept. A reminder, that even the biggest stars do breathe the same air as you and me.

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