At a Mississippi Delta festival, Robert Plant discusses the blues, Africa and his latest band.
Robert Plant stands on a small stage 4,500 miles from his birthplace, and yet he’s never been so close to home.
We’re in Clarksdale, in the very heart of the Mississippi Delta, which the former Led Zeppelin frontman has appointed as the setting for the American debut of his latest musical shenanigan, with his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters.
Plant is headlining the 25th annual Sunflower Blues Festival, topping a bill that features such stalwarts as James “Super Chikan” Johnson and Charlie Musselwhite. With his new confederates, he’s mixing and mashing songs from a lifetime of devotion to this heartland, once known as the golden buckle in the Cotton Belt.
In a blinding performance, the band roars through retooled versions of Zeppelin’s Black Dog, Bron-Yr-Aur and even a burst of Whole Lotta Love, also making selections from his solo catalogue alongside nods to Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Willie Dixon and other blues titans.
This place lent its name to the 1998 collaboration that marked Plant’s first studio work with Jimmy Page in two decades, Walking Into Clarksdale, and it’s a true spiritual home from home. That’s obvious from the minute he sits down the following morning on the front porch swing of one of the festival’s organisers, a personal friend who got him to take up their longtime invitation.
“The whole reason for coming to America right now was that I’ve been asked a zillion times to play at this festival, and I wanted it to be Africa returning to Africa,” he tells me, acknowledging the extraordinary flavours of Space Shifter Juldeh Camara. The Gambian master musician adds to the feeling of a music that came out of African-American pockets of the South, now being sent back there.
Plant says he has almost completed a new album with the Space Shifters, “12 tracks, 11 originals and no sentimental stuff”. If they deliver on disc as they do on stage, it’ll be a record to savour. The group, who made their British debut at Womad last month, boasts lusty guitar lines from both the longtime collaborator Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson, with some vocals by Plant’s partner Patty Griffin.
The frontman’s working choices of recent years have been peripatetic. After he and Alison Krauss had taken bluegrass and Americana to a massive new audience by selling three million copies worldwide of the 2007 collaboration Raising Sand, he constructed the Band of Joy, featuring Griffin, guitarist Buddy Miller and others, for a tour and self-titled 2010 album. For Plant, a change is better than a rest.
“The events between 1968 and 1980 were the kind of cornerstone for everything I’ve been able to do, they gave me the springboard,” he says, referring to the Zeppelin era. “All I’m doing is using the same amount of licence, with different people, to what we did in 1969.
“That was the great thing about the adventures with Alison, and singing with Patty and Buddy, that I started singing differently. Somebody said to me in London when we played the Forum recently, ‘You had your big voice back.’ I put the big voice away for quite a long time because I thought, we know how to do that. So it was good to get it out again. It’s all the same really, you just have to use the right colours for the right picture.”
Plant is on sharp and thoughtful form. The lines on his face may be trying to betray his 64 years, but his unquenchable inquisitiveness is infectious, as he joins the improbable dots between the Delta and his West Midlands heritage with a level of knowledge that’s scholarly but never showy.
“I don’t know when it was that I first came here,” he muses. “If I said I came looking for Robert Johnson… I was actually just looking for clues. And I found clues.
“When I came here in the 1980s, before the museum was here, when RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough were still playing, there was still an actual scene for that grinding [blues] stuff, so it was very easy for white kids to get on to that. I suppose that was the last really great flurry.”
More recently, Plant visited Clarksdale’s reopened Roxy club. “I went there in winter and saw Lightnin’ Malcolm with Kimbrough’s grandson, playing hip hop drums against this grinding, excessive guitar thing. It was really good, fire baskets blazing and the stars over the Mississippi. Suddenly I thought wow, how did I get here?”
For a boy from West Bromwich, the route might seem serpentine, but in inspirational terms, it was really a direct route from the Black Country to the Mississippi River. On Plant’s earliest recordings, long before Zeppelin and even before the original Band of Joy, you can hear that he had answered the call of the Delta, and it’s been in his bones ever since.
“I’ve got friends I went to school with, back home in Worcestershire, who’ve still got their programmes from going to see those festivals at the Birmingham Town Hall or wherever it was they played – Manchester Free Trade Hall – where you’d see Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor. We’re talking about 48 years ago. It doesn’t figure, really, but maybe that’s why it works. Maybe that was the draw for me.”
I remind him of a favourite tale he has told before of one particular British visit by another of his heroes, Sonny Boy Williamson, who tried to cook up his favourite repast, rabbit, in the only thing he could find in his hotel room, a coffee percolator, and promptly fell asleep. Legend has it that the whole floor had to be evacuated. “It was a bit of a stink,” says Plant with some understatement.
“But the connections for me were just those voices, drifting through West Midland adolescence. Unexplainable, really. In the British racial exchanges, we learned a lot from Studio One and all that great stuff coming out of Kingston, for sure, thanks to people like Chris Blackwell at Island Records. But this stuff was foreign.”
It informed Plant’s earliest ambitions and never budged, even when he and an early collaborator, drummer John Bonham, first met up with Page and bassist John Paul Jones. “It seemed to go hand in hand with a kind of underground, bohemian sub-culture coming along, that wanted to get as far away from the Cliff Richard world,” he says.
“So much Zeppelin did come from here. Almost subconsciously, just through the floor of the room where we were recording. With Jimmy’s enthusiasm and knowledge and record collection, between the two of us, on that level, we had such a mutual preference towards that stuff, and the wild side of rock ’n’ roll.”
The festival date featured a fine version of John Mayall’s I’m Your Witchdoctor, with Plant recognising how the blues went from the US to Britain and back again in an “upside down” reimagining.
“Without the people from around here, where would we have been? What would Mick and Keith have done?” he wonders. “It’s all a long way back, even to go back to Led Zeppelin or the Stones or whatever, but it did shape, and still does shape, the music from around here. It goes through to the Black Keys, to Jack White, to all over the place. There’s nothing new under the sun – you just get a can of paint out.”
For more information about music trips to Mississippi and other Southern states see www.deep-south-usa.com
by Paul Sexton