Monday, September 08, 2014

Long live the king: Robert Plant - Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar

In an excellent recent interview with Uncut magazine, Robert Plant was depicted walking through the remains of Ludlow Castle in Shropshire. Ludlow is a place I know well, having spent the first year of my career in the pretty - and now gastronomically-engorged - market town on the Welsh border.

The castle itself holds a strategically commanding view over the River Teme and into the Welsh hills, where famously, Led Zeppelin disappeared to get their heads together and creatively recharge while on hiatus from marauding through the western hemisphere.

Uncut’s location for the photoshoot and interview was, then, perfect: the still-leonine king, surveying a more modest kingdom to the one he once ruled.

Moreover, Plant is seemingly content with his world, a 66-year-old rock god making jokes about his entitlement to free senior citizen concessions. This from the onetime viking warrior who travelled across land and sea in a Boeing 707 known as ‘The Starship’.

There is, of course, the slightly thorny issue of Jimmy Page appearing to accuse Plant of "playing games" over committing to one last, lucrative Led Zeppelin crusade. "I'm not my brother's keeper,” he told the magazine in an attempt to defuse things. "And he, really, as a pro, should know better than that... I feel for the guy. He knows he's got the headlines if he wants 'em. But I don't know what he's trying to do. So I feel slightly disappointed and baffled."

The point of all this is that Plant is actual more than comfortable in his more modest kingdom today. The days of the ‘Riot House’ Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard being Zeppelin’s own Xanadu have long gone, as has the Boeing. Today he and his band The Sensational Shape Shifters tour by train and evoke a camaraderie more akin to Robin Hood's Merry Men. Having seen them twice this summer - in Paris and then three weeks later at the Montreux Jazz Festival - it’s clear that this is Plant’s court now.

Plant hasn’t, however, completely abandoned Led Zeppelin: his live set contains quite a number of the band's songs. Some, like Going To California and What Is And What Should Never Be, were recreated in much their original form. While others - notably Rock and Roll - were infused with the world music vibe that pervades Plant’s new album, Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, released today, and which he recorded with the Space Shifters.

It’s a product of both contrasting textures and ethnicity, a blend of African rhythms, Celtic adventure and Middle Eastern exotica. And it starts with Little Maggie, a song from 1948 by two brothers, Carter and Ralph Stanley, from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia.

It is typical of Plant's latter work - taking something old and blending it with seemingly incongruous ingredients to turn it into something which looks exotic and tastes sublime. This, on Lullaby’s opener, Juldeh Camara - the Gambian who plays the single-stringed riti fiddle - blends with Plant’s breathy vocals to reinvent American bluegrass as a music form from thousands of miles away.  

The irony of this is that Plant describes Lullaby as something of an English homecoming. Having spent the last few years bi-located in the UK and Austin, Texas, where he was in a relationship with the musician Patty Griffin, his return to the West Midlands he grew up in has provided fresh perspective - and a wider palette to choose from.

"Now I have a whole index, an absolute rainbow, of influences,” he said recently. "I need to talk about what's going on in my life, in my lap, speaking from my experience; it's far more honest and much more appropriate.” In this spirit Rainbow - another track previewed on the summer tour - takes a gentle and reflective romantic tone, pleasant while the brooding, piano-based ballad A Stolen Kiss, draws on Plant’s break-up with Griffin.

Break-ups are always inspiring, but rather than being Plant’s own maudlin Blood On The Tracks or Face Value, there is a sense of renewed freedom in Lullaby, even playfulness. Thus, Turn It Up finds Plant’s current guitar muse, Justin Adams, having fun Bo Diddley riffing on a song about the great American road trip, "I’m lost inside America…I’m stuck inside the radio, turn it on and let me out!”, touring through the South with nutjob Bible Belt radio stations for amusement.

Over the last two or three solo albums, Adams has been, to a certain extent, Plant’s musical director. Like another former guitar-playing sidekick, a clever sorcerer of influences. “He saved my life, musically,” Plant recently said of Adams in an interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormack. "His contribution, as a positive force in my time, has been second to none,” noting “he doesn’t think the guitar begins and ends with Clapton, Beck and Page.”

That’s no dig at Page, or any of the other two former Yardbirds. It’s simply Plant’s declaration that his musical life has been a journey, one that started in Birmingham as a teenager, seeing blues legends like Son House and Bukka White bring their Mississippi blues to the English industrial heartland, and which now comes to a 10th solo album featuring afro-beat tracks like Arbaden (Maggie’s Baby) which includes the Delta-like line “I’m going down to the station with my suitcase in my hand”.

Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Road is by no means the perfect. Somebody There and the decidedly soft rock House Of Love nod back to the material Plant was producing in the immediate years after Led Zeppelin’s demise - slick 1980s, MTV-friendly pop. They’re not bad, but far less interesting than the diversity elsewhere, and stronger tracks like Embrace Another Fall, a powerful blend of tribal rhythms and walloping guitars or, arguably, the standout of the record, Up On The Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur), with a searing Saharan heat evoked by Adams’ guitar.

Plant has suggested - possibly mischievously so - that this could be his last album, but I don’t think so. Instead of reaching the end of the line, there is a curiosity, still, in him to discover more and encounter new. His live shows this summer weren’t farewells, or even grand, O2-sized attempts to recreate past glories. “It seems to have some sort of finality,” he says of his journey, but that doesn't mean it's over. Long live the king.

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