In more ways than one, Robert Plant likes to keep on the move. Physically, his adventures in the past 10 years alone have taken him from Mali to Mississippi via Tennessee and Texas. Musically, in that same period he has sung African blues, made a Grammy-slaying country-folk album (with Alison Krauss) and played rootsy rock with his partner, country star Patty Griffin, in Band of Joy.
He is on the move again with his latest venture, the Sensational Space Shifters. The project reunites him with most of his early 2000s band, Strange Sensation, adding the redoubtable tweak of Juldeh Camara, a west African master of the ritti (a traditional one-stringed African violin) and the kologo (a kind of cross between a lute and a banjo). Camara’s contributions give the Sensational Space Shifters a heady and potent world-music flavour.
”The musical overview of this thing is so … kaleidoscopic,” Plant says. ”It means that we can visit songs from my distant past or contemporary songs or stuff from the darkest sort of swamps of Mississippi or bayou of Louisiana and turn ‘em upside down on their head using amazing west African rhythms.”
It’s fair to say Plant’s ”distant past” is the reason most fans are still interested in what he’s up to, especially following the recent release of Celebration Day, a recording of a one-off 2007 tribute concert to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. During that show, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin (Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and their late drummer’s son (Jason Bonham) tore through highlights from their devastating back catalogue.
Despite repeated requests for that band to reunite for a tour, Plant has resisted because, ”to actually pour forth into something beyond a special occasion is folly”.
”But, y’know, we’re in touch quite a lot and when there’s another special occasion, somebody’ll tell me about it and I’ll say yes or no. I’m certainly not against that idea as a hoot – providing it’s fresh, exciting, riveting and so long as we’re scared out of our minds.”
This would further explain some of the thrilling, unusual versions of Led Zeppelin standards such as Black Dog, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp and Rock and Roll that have made it into Sensational Space Shifters sets alongside the band’s own originals and covers of blues giants such as Howlin’ Wolf and Bukka White.
When Plant noticed, during a trip to Mali ”about seven or eight years ago”, the blues affinity between the Tuareg people of noted collective Tinariwen and his old-school American idols, ”I got really, really excited. I was listening to stuff that was coming off the stage and thinking, well, this is amazing, really, ’cause neither these guys who are playing this music in the beautiful Malian desert evening nor the guys down there in Cleveland, Mississippi, have any idea of these links – but they’re there.”
Before he could pursue that train of thought, though, he started his duet project with Alison Krauss. They would go on to win five Grammy awards in 2009 for their collaboration, including album of the year for Raising Sand and record of the year for Please Read the Letter.
An album with the Band of Joy followed before Plant came to the realisation that he ”really just missed the wolf in me”, something he rediscovered with the Sensational Space Shifters.
”You have to actually move out into other spheres to get a lick of this and a lick of that, y’know, and I’ve learnt how to sing in lots of different ways and I thank all the gods for that.”
It’s Plant’s distinctive voice that has made him the rock icon he has become over the years. But as far as he is concerned, the Sensational Space Shifters are about much more than the voice.
”It’s about energy – and also it’s about Juldeh Camara. He’s a guy who’s spent most of his life entertaining and he’s every bit as dynamic and interesting as an entertainer as I could ever be.
”We laugh and we work off each other and when he speaks to me in Bambara or whatever it is and I’m completely befuddled by it, we just reach to the heavens and we pull down the great gift that all the gods put together for us. And that is what it’s all about. That’s why you actually commit to tours and say, ‘Yeah, OK, I’m gonna do it. Let’s go.”’
Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters play at the Entertainment Centre on March 28, at Byron Bay Bluesfest on March 30 and the Newcastle Entertainment Centre on Easter Sunday March 31.