Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters are a class act. Few rockers of Plant’s generation have matured as well and kept as open a musical mind as he has, as evidenced by the eclectic material he’s recorded in the decades since Led Zeppelin ceased, as well as the diverse skills of his multi-cultural band. The last time Plant appeared on ACL in 2002, he gave us a show for the ages that’s still talked about and referenced. Fourteen years later, he and his six-piece band (a variation on the one that accompanied him last time) did it again, this time livestreamed for fans everywhere.
Plant grabbed the audience by the heart immediately by playing a recording of the song “Twine Time” in tribute to Austin’s late blues/soul/jazz DJ Paul Ray. He and the Shifters then launched into his former band’s “The Lemon Song,” re-imagined as a shuffle that emphasizes the classic blues lyrics Zep borrowed when it was first recorded. Sending a clear signal that he wasn’t living in the past, he followed up with the spacy, bendir-and-eBow-enhanced anthem “Rainbow,” from his most recent album Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar. Then it was back to the Zep catalog for the immortal “Black Dog,” given a roiling tempo, electronic frosting, an extended coda featuring Gambian musician Juldeh Camera’s ritti (a West African bowed instrument) and enthusiastic call and response from the crowd. Plant then Roared back with the groovy powerhouse “Turn It Up,” a song he explained was inspired by his years living in Austin.
Plant followed that slice of modern rock by taking on Howlin’ Wolf’s classic “Spoonful,” giving it a crawling Afro-psychedelic makeover and a duet between Camara’s ritti and guitarist Justin Adams’ tehardant, a West African lute. He then revisited one of his earliest solo hits, the atmospheric, incomparable “In the Mood,” given an acoustic guitar/banjo/piano reading here. Plant went back to the well of the mighty Wolf, taking the heavy blues “No Place to Go” (AKA “How Many More Years”) into spacier, more exotic territory thanks to Camara’s bowing and keyboardist John Baggot’s exotic sounds. He continued his trip through the past by seguing directly into the classic “Dazed and Confused” and following it with that band’s mighty rearrangement of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” – both staples of Zeppelin’s repertoire. “Can you feel it?” Plant asked, and the answer was a definite affirmative, with “Babe” earning a standing ovation. .
Plant and the Shifters stayed with music history, but given a 21st century update: the Ralph Stanley-popularized folk song “Little Maggie” became a droning worldbeat tour-de-force, while Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die” became the freight-train rhythmed anthem they performed the last time they were here. The main set crashed to a close as Plant and the Shifters gave the audience a treat, running Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” into the titanic “Whole Lotta Love,” which itself incorporated an Africanized “Hey Bo Diddley.” The audience sang the chorus back to them in ecstasy.
There was no way that didn’t leave us hungry for more, of course, and the band soon returned. First up for the encore was a redo of “Rainbow.” Then the Shifters and Plant essayed a brooding version of the traditional gospel blues “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which Plant recorded for Band of Joy. Plant and the Shifters left us with a major crowdpleaser: the “old English folk song” most of us know as the immortal “Rock and Roll,” taken into a new, groovy place via Baggot’s keyboards, Camara’s ritti and some more audience call-and-response. Plant and the Shifters took a well-deserved bow to a standing ovation. It was a sensational show from a music giant never content to rest on his laurels, and we can’t wait for you to see the broadcast episode when it airs this fall as part of our Season 42 on your local PBS station.