Robert Plant – Portsmouth Guildhall – 11th December 2017

Robert Plant – Portsmouth Guildhall
Photo by Jamie MacMillan

Approaching the autumn of his years like a sprinter, Robert Plant shows no sign of slowing down. His restless, nomadic search for sonic inspirations from all corners of the world has continued and the latest results were an exceptional album in Carry Fire, a meditative piece on the passing of time that is still packed with vitality. Hitting the road once more, his shows are displaying a man still at the height of his powers at 69 – who once again has surrounded himself with exceptional musicians.

Support came from Seth Lakeman, who Plant later joked was, “Being held captive”, such is his huge reputation in the modern folk scene – indeed, there are very few acts who could dream of having such a talented artist as a support. Lakeman engaged the crowd with his easy-going charm and a series of beautifully played tales, many drawn from his Devon and Cornwall heritage. Skipping between fiddle and bouzouki, it climaxed in a suitably wintery and gorgeous ‘Portrait Of My Wife’ and then a sensational ‘Kitty Jay’. The latter began with ominous hints of Hans Zimmer’s ‘The Dark Knight’ score before metamorphosing into a surging foot-stomping epic, a musical tour de force which brought the crowd to its feet at its finale.

As the seats quickly filled up in between support and the main show, it was apparent that nobody wanted to miss a second of what was to come. As the lights dimmed and the Deep South sounds of ‘Rosie’ by C.B. And Ten Others With Axes filled the airwaves, there was a hum of anticipation before gasps of “It’s him!” as Robert Anthony Plant took to the stage. He has continued to record new music since the dissolution of Led Zeppelin back in 1980, and has not ever become a recluse like many of his peers – but there was still an obvious thrill and disbelief at seeing him appear from the shadows. Immediately lost in the environment around him, shoulders hunched at the mic stand and with that voice still present and correct, Plant and the band launched straight into ‘New World…’ – one of many highlights from this year’s Carry Fire.

Even approaching 70, Plant is still every inch the rock star – kicking the mic stand high in the air before catching it effortlessly, he was clearly having a ball with a wide grin on his face from the start. Boldly describing working with the Sensational Space Shifters as “The best time of my professional life”, it showed in every part of his performance during an impeccably curated set which dipped liberally into his nigh-on half century of recorded music. Clearly rejoicing in his past as much as the present, ‘That’s The Way’ from Led Zeppelin III sat comfortably next to newer work. Afterwards, Plant joked, “1970 feels like yesterday, I don’t know where it went. I guess I just forgot to remember it?” Through it all, the threads connected due to a timeless quality and the magical set of musicians who make up the Sensational Space Shifters.

As well as Lakeman, the band are comprised of a number of artists who truly live up to their name and all enjoyed more than a few moments in the limelight. Liam “Skin” Tyson (of Cast fame) and Justin Adams were a guitar duo to rival the very best, while Billy Fuller (bass) and Dave Smith (drums) drove everything along behind them. On keys, John Baggott (formerly of Massive Attack) added a modern feel to the night. Amongst them all, Plant was like a spritely version of Gandalf, encouraging his younger friends on to new musical mischief – almost doing a jig during ‘Gallows Pole’. Much like one of his previous bands, this is a band of joy indeed.

The clear highlight of the night was a truly show-stopping combination of new and old. As Adams played the haunting Tinariwen-esque intro to ‘Carry Fire’, the combination of the bands’ shadows dancing on the walls of the venue and images of flames licking the wall behind them gave the illusion that the audience was gathered around a campfire somewhere in deepest Africa. With the ever-present smell of incense in the air, it was a transcendent piece that could hardly be topped. Yet topped it was. As Tyson sat down at the front of stage, audible gasps and then a spine-tingling roar of recognition swept around the room as the unmistakeable intro to ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ began. It was a moment that raised goosebumps on top of goosebumps, as Plant showed that he had lost absolutely none of his formidable vocal power or range in the delivery of this stone-cold classic from Led Zeppelin’s debut album. Taking their time throughout, Plant appreciatively sat back at one point to watch the intricacies of Tyson’s guitar-playing. It was exceptionally powerful and will live forever in the hearts and memories of all who witnessed it – fully earning the standing ovation that refused to die down at its conclusion.

Understandably, it was hard to match afterwards – but the encore ran it close. Chrissie Hynde may not have made it to Portsmouth (“We couldn’t afford her”, Plant laughed) – but ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’ still soared like the birds of its subject before moving into a wall-shaking rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. It wrapped up an unforgettable night, with an artist who is thankful for his past but still carrying his fire into his 70th year and beyond.

Jamie MacMillan