- 07 Aug 18
Ahead of his return to Dublin in October as part of Bluesfest 2018, Pat Carty fills his Trabant with unleded, and heads to Dresden to catch Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters
The view as you drive into the central old town of Dresden across the Carolabrücke over the river Elbe is as rich in history as one would expect. This is the city the allies controversially tried to level in four air raids in February 1945, dropping over 3,900 tons of explosives, destroying 6.5 km2 of buildings. The Dresden Frauenkirche, or church of our lady, lay in ruins for 45 years under the communist East German regime, officially a memorial against war. After German reunification at the end of the eighties, it was decided to reconstruct the building using the Bähr plans from the 18th century, and as much of the remaining stone as possible. The fire damage on those original stones is still visible, as it is on other buildings in the city centre. The effect of 41 years of communist rule remains too, in the Plattenbau apartment architecture dotted throughout the city – small windows with little space between them. Those walls must have been paper thin.
Another remnant of the old days is the Freilichtbühne Junge Garde at the Großer Garten outdoor amphitheatre, the last port of call on the current batch of European dates from Robert Plant & His Sensational Space Shifters. Completed in 1955, and designated by the then Lord Mayor, Walter Weidauer, as a way to “forget the horror of the completely ruined city of Dresden for a few hours” and to entertain “socialist workers and all of the people”, it was used for city festivals and political events, and, once reunification happened, rock n’ roll shows. Tonight’s show is sold out well in advance and a lot of this mostly middle aged crowd sport faded Led Zeppelin t-shirts as medals of honour. One can imagine that when they were younger men and women, it was no small matter to get a hold of such badges of identity, it wasn’t just a case of an amazon click or a trip into town to the local HMV.
The night before, I went for a few drinks in Berlin with a friend of a friend, Roland. Now a tv production manager, Roland was a teenager in East Berlin. Surprisingly, he kind of misses the old days, where he felt there was a spirit of camaraderie amongst the youth in his neighbourhood, where, because of their proximity to the free western side of the city, they could get what they wanted on the black market. They were sexually liberated too, apparently, filled with a sense of physical freedom in the face of a rigid regime. It must have been a different story this far east. Dresden is not far from both the Czech Republic and Polish borders. Former Hot Press snapper, Kathrin Baumbach tells a story of her parents cherishing albums pressed onto old x-ray sheets. It’s hard to imagine, in this age of music on tap, just how vital and, dare I say, liberating it must have been to hear the likes of Zeppelin, whatever the unlikely media they were being carried on, back in the days before the wall came down.
They certainly didn’t want those workers dozing off during the speeches, if the seats are anything to go by – they’re as unyielding as a border guard. The heat of the day isn’t helping either. When Seth Lakeman takes to the stage in support at about 7:30, it’s still a tasty 32°. The Devon man swaps between fiddle, tenor guitar, and what I think is a type of bouzouki as he barrels through ‘The Hurlers’ – Cornish men played the game on a Sunday, turned to stone for their troubles, ‘The Bold Knight’ – slain under his shield out of the Moors, ‘The Educated Man’ – “a word is like a jewel to an educated man” – nice, ‘Silver Threads’ – a beautiful song of love growing old, and the closing ‘Kitty Jay’ – more news from the nineteenth century. Using nothing more than his own instrumentation, and the amplified stomp from his boot, he wins the crowd over with ease.
I’ve reviewed Plant in Dublin recently enough (Lakeman also providing support that night), but it’s a show that keeps developing, growing in subtle ways. Walking on stage to the sound of African tribal music, Plant graciously acknowledges the hero’s welcome he receives before they go into a much altered run at ‘When The Levee Breaks’. It's all slow tremolo blues before Lakemen, double jobbing as a Sensational Space Shifter as well as the support act, lets rip on the fiddle to take the parts originally played on slide guitar. It swings like an experimental married couple. Plant looks fantastic too, he might even be sporting leather kacks, and if he is, in this heat, he’s more of a hero than even I gave him credit for. Mind you, there won’t be an awful lot of dancing tonight, it’s just too warm. “Fuck, it’s hot”, says Plant at one point, and he’s not joking. More than once, my assistant and local guide, Ms Herzberger, had to race for refreshments lest your made-for-the-cold correspondent expired.
Through songs from their recent Carry Fire album, a Hot Press 2017 album of the year, and rejigged Zep monoliths, Plant & The Shapers bend everything to their will, their vision of a true world music where the black country of Plant’s youth, the West Coast hippy pop he fell in love with, the deep blues that was the bedrock his old band built upon, the ancient English folk music that the likes of Lakeman are basically passing along, and the African & Asian music Plant has long championed, all combine to form a vital whole. During ‘Turn It Up’ Plant works the tambourine like a village elder trying a mating ritual out to see if it still works over Justin Adams’ space-rockabilly guitar, there’s sufi-like singing during the dobro/acoustic guitar twang of ‘The May Queen’, and ‘Black Dog’ starts off in some Berlin industrial club before the guitars kick in over a hammond driven “Hey Baby”. Where it once strutted, now it stutters, going into a gypsy jig showdown between Lakeman’s violin and Adams’ guitar to finish. Not for the last time tonight, Plant’s seventies lupine howl is recreated with a judicious use of echo effects – helped, no doubt, by Dublin man Mark Kennedy, playing a blinder as Plant’s front-of-house engineer - but it works, so no one’s complaining.
A solitary piano introduces ‘The Rain Song’, the immortal classic from Zep’s Houses Of The Holy, the acoustic guitar is added, then the double bass, as well as Lakeman’s violin and an organ through what sounds like a leslie speaker, before the drums crash in and lift the heart of every Zepper present, although the “just a little rain must fall” refrain is ironic given the present conditions. Oh God, if only. It’s absolutely beautiful and privilage to hear the magnificent old bastard dig it out. ‘Rainbow’ from 2014’s Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar finds Plant beating on a bodhrán (alright then, African hand drum) and utilising an update of Howlin’ Wolf’s signature howl. After an intro where he thanks German promoters for first bringing the likes of Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson to Europe to inject a little life into their “anaemic saxon music’, ‘Gallows Pole’ is played as an acousitc guitar, fiddle and banjo hoedown, Lakeman in particular working hard to earn his bed and board.
A brilliant ‘Carry Fire’, with a new electric ending, gives way to an extended echo-acoustic intro from guitarist Skin Tyson to ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’, and he has another acoustic freak out at the end, combining spaghetti western, spanish, and african flavours, a Sergio-Sierra-Leone cocktail, if you will. It’s pretty spectacular. ‘Little Maggie’ and ‘Fixin’ To Die’ are played respectfully as an electro/diddley bow/space banjo/ fiddle mash-up and a mutant country shuffle – special mention to Adams for his Bo Diddley-on-meth guitar solo, before the band take a well earned break.
The encore starts with a word about the lunatics taking over the asylum across the Atlantic before ‘New World’, a song about immigration, and then the finale of ‘Bring It On Home/ Whole Lotta Love/Santianna’. Santianna, just in case you didn’t know, dates from at least as far back as the 1850’s and details the Mexican-American war, but forget all that, and concentrate on the riff that ate the world. If that five note phrase at the heart of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ doesn’t have you jumping out of your seat and laying it out on a nearby air axe then you’ve no business being anywhere near any rock n’ roll in the first place.
Plant wasn’t doing any interviews around these shows, not to us anyway, and we did ask. Perhaps he’s had one too many “when are the Zep getting back together” inquiries. I’ll probably get shot for this, but I can’t be the only one who was a bit disappointed with the 2007 Celebration Day reunion. Of course, I couldn’t get a ticket, so I only have the recorded show to go on, but I felt Page went on just that bit too much, so anxious to prove he’s still got it. He could really do with taking a break from endless reissues and taking a leaf – yes, I know, Plant’s symbol on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV – out of his old mate’s book. Surround yourself with young(er) musicians who, while they respect your legacy, are willing to take it somewhere else. Plant and his band just get better and better and, unlike nearly all his contemporaries, you don’t have to throw your eyes up to heaven and head for the jacks when he decides to do something from the new album. Sensational is indeed the word.
Pic: Pia Herzberger