The Redoubtable Mr. Robert Plant Brings His Magical Musical Caravan To Town. Stowaway: Pat Carty
The idea of a particular kind of English (or Irish) folk singer – Aran jumper, “homely looking”, finger in the ear, eyes closed, recounting London’s cholera outbreak of 1832 - is hardly one you could apply to Seth Lakeman. Well, perhaps the cholera outbreak. This handsome young man, “he’s putting the sex into something inherently sexless”, opines Kíla’s Brian Hogan across the top of a few intermission drinks, is here to sell the kind of shanties you might hear in a Patrick O’Brien novel to the masses.
Accompanied only by a variety of self-powered stringed instruments – fiddle, bouzouki, and tenor guitar (a four stringed instrument, usually tuned CGDA, known as the fifths tuning, allowing for lots of open notes and moveable chords), Lakeman’s set can be divided into three streams. He carries on the old folk tradition of “news songs”, think of the many blues songs that deal with the Great Mississippi flood of 1927, by remembering the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981 where sixteen lives were lost off the Cornish coast in ‘Solomon Browne’. There are love songs such as ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold’ and the gorgeous ‘Portrait Of My Wife’, which would make even the most inveterate landlubber long to quit this cursed king’s navy and sail home to his best lass. But it is the legends and stories of his native Devon and Cornwall that really bring things to life. ‘The Hurlers’ tells the story, true, apparently, of the Cornish men who were turned to stone as punishment for playing the game on a Sunday, the three stone circles still standing near the village of Minions on Bodmin Moor in east Cornwall. ‘The Bold Knight’ is a tale of doomed love, and resultant death, upon the moors and, best of all, ‘Kitty Jay’ – a servant girl is raped, in the early nineteenth century by the farmer’s son and commits suicide by hanging herself, flowers continue to appear mysteriously on her grave, put their either by the ghost of her lover, or the Cornish elves, known as piskies. You don't get much of this in the top ten. It’s an eye opening set and, thankfully, a world away from the currently in vogue new folk by the likes of that crowd whose name rhymes with ‘hokum’.
Lakeman, a fully-fledged member of Plant’s band, The Sensational Space Shifters, is an obvious choice for support. Plant has had one foot in the folk tradition for his entire career - Led Zeppelin III, with it’s acoustic numbers conceived on hilltop overlooking the Dyfi valley in Wales is, for all intents and purposes, a folk album, and the one from the glory years that Plant will dip into most tonight – but he’s never been content to just look back. Almost unique amongst his contemporaries in rock’s second generation, he has insisted on moving forward. Imagine, if you can, turning down the equivalent of a small country’s GDP in order to follow your own path. Even if you dislike Plant’s music, you have to admire him for that.
‘New World...’ with which Plant opens, sits in that tradition, describing as it does the bloody conquest of the new world over a stately march. It’s the first track tonight from Plant’s recent Carry Fire album, which deservedly won the prestigious Hot Press “folk” album of the year. HP will try to slip into the dressing room later to present the gong and offer our congratulations, only for some burly types to question our parentage and tell us in no uncertain terms where we could stick our trophy. ‘Turn It Up’ from 2014’s lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar is Bo Diddley by way of Bamako. Plant has long championed what is lazily referred to as ‘world music’ since the days himself and Jimmy Page would head off to India on exploratory missions in the early seventies, and he was one of the first westerners to perform at the Festival au Désert just outside Timbuktu, in Northern Mali, the gathering that would first bring the mighty Tinariwen to world attention. Justin Adams, the guitarist who has worked with Plant since 2005’s Mighty Rearranger, would go on to produce Tinariwen and recorded two excellent albums with Gambian griot (historian/storyteller/musician) Juldeh Camara, who would add his Nyanyero (African one stringed fiddle) to Plant’s band for a few years. See? It’s all connected.
After ‘Turn It Up’, which offers a tantalising glimpse of Plant’s signature “carrying a fairy in his open hand” dance move, he mentions what a fancy gig the Bord Gáis Theatre is, and that there’ll be no Maureen’s bar (The Olympia) tonight. This choice of venue is surely further proof that he’s not in this for the money - not that he needs to be, of course. The theatre holds maybe two thousand, to see a man who could have sold out the 3Arena in a heartbeat.
‘The May Queen’ is carried by the fiddle/dobro battle between Lakeman and the brilliant Liam “Skin” Tyson - who knew the bloke from indie no-hopers Cast would end up here? Four African hand drums, or “Bodhráns” if you’re trying to buy some in Walton’s, drive ‘Rainbow’ before a warmly welcomed version of ‘That’s The Way’, which draws audible gasps, from me at least, when Billy Fuller comes in on the double bass. The mandolin solo and coda, with Plant throwing shapes on the tambourine in the background, is as spine tingling as you might imagine. ‘All The King’s Horses’ is just as beautiful before they go into Richard Thompson’s ‘House Of Cards’, Plant acknowledging the influence he has been as the song morphs into a sort of psychedelic hoe down, the Thompson/Neil Young guitar break intertwining with the fiddle.
Calling on the ghost of Leadbelly in his introduction, ‘Gallow’s Pole’ is played like some seriously pilled up version of Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three. Adams’ fretless guitar in ‘Carry Fire’ reminds me of a desert I’ve never seen, it’s a hypnotic stretched out highlight, lifted further by Lakeman’s playing and Tyson throwing in hints of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Tyson then walks away with ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ with first his spaghetti western intro, and then his jaw-dropping acoustic guitar break. The soft-loud-soft structure could almost be a longhaired version of the Pixies and, to add to the rarefied atmosphere, the incense that has been burning on the monitors is replenished, regularly. Years ago, I saw one of Bob Marley’s sons in concert, and a band member spent the whole gig waving a flag. I had thought that was the job for me until I saw Plant’s incense roadie in “action”.
‘Little Maggie’ stands as a summation of Plant’s philosophy – all music comes from the same place, and nothing is off limits. The song is some kind of Appalachian house music – Adams is playing what looks like a Kora, Tyson is on the space banjo, and keyboard player John Baggot is playing a single drum he might have borrowed from Yankee Doodle. Kicking off Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ To Die’ with a sequencer only offers further emphasis. A reimagining of ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ as something Moby Grape might knock out in a garage closes the main part of the set.
Before the encore, audience members speculate on what might yet be to come. The bloke behind me assures his mate that “if he does Kashmir, I’m going to fuckin’ shit!” What we do get is a blistering ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ and ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountains’, which includes lyrical nods to both ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and ‘The Battle Of Evermore’. Then the band jam on what sounds like a Doors album track before bursting into a crushing version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ because, despite all the musical globe trotting, this is still Robert Plant and, if he’s gonna offer every inch of his love then, even given the current climate, we’re going to take it.
With that, he’s gone, off to the next adventure. I’ve seen near-contemporaries of Plant on this very stage basically get by on the goodwill of their fans, cheered on just for being here. This is not the route our man has chosen. In an interview broadcast on Dave Fanning’s 2Fm show that very morning, Plant had spoken about “living it out for the right reasons” and not getting caught in the merry-go-round that he feels a lot of his peers are trapped on. You can see by the grin on his face as he spins and struts through tonight’s show that he knows he’s made the right choice.
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