In contrast to Elton John‘s sprawling opening night of this year’s Electric Proms there was a laid-back, relaxed atmosphere in the Roundhouse for Robert Plant’s appearance. The Led Zeppelin singer last played in London only a month ago, showcasing tracks from his latest album Band Of Joy. It’s an album that continues along a familiar country-tinged folk rock road along which he’s always seemed happy to amble. But what would he change from that set to produce his “new moment in music” and justify inclusion in the series’ programme?
Band Of Joy, originally the name Plant used for another collection of musicians that included the late John Bonham before they both went on to join Led Zeppelin, seems now to be a mutable assortment made up of whomsoever he happens to be playing with at any given time. Presently it is headed by guitarist Buddy Miller, whom Plant in deferential terms calls “our commander”, and features Patty Griffin in a supporting vocalist role.
The band (of joy) take their positions and strike up Down To The Sea, from Plant’s 1993 album Fate Of Nations. He flicks his trademark blond curls about and grabs his mic stand like he means to play some guitar on it, yet displays few signs of standing out as the front man. Instead this feels like a genuine partnership of equals, with Plant’s voice as just one of the instruments alongside Miller’s assorted guitars, Griffin’s harmonies, mandolin, pedal steel and the rhythm section. At one point he retreats backwards and takes up a position to parp some harmonica, and at other times he stands aside and claps as his bandmates play on. There is no evidence of ego; this adds to the communal feel.
The set itself proves to be eclectic. Plant justifiably wheels out a slew of numbers from the new album, including Richard Thompson cover House Of Cards, the Los Lobos “reimagining” Angel Dance and the century-old Theodore Tilton poem set to music, Even This Shall Pass Away. But he finds space too for three Led Zeppelin numbers; these, predictably, provoke whoops from fans who’ve come to this gig expecting just such spicings. Tangerine is first out of the blocks, while Gallows Pole ends the main set to huge appreciation and a bluesy interpretation of Rock & Roll rounds out the first encore.
The set was billed as including the London Oriana Choir, but we’re into the second encore before the singers finally file on to an otherwise disused backstage rostrum to accompany on 12 Gates To The City and the virtually a cappella I Bid You Goodnight. Given their number, and how long it takes them to ascend to and descend from their positions, it seems odd that the singers weren’t utilized further. But as with the Zepellin numbers, arrangements with the choir do make this gig seem like a one-off.
Plant has achieved a balance that suits him. As a solo artist he can pick and choose the musicians with whom he works, create solo or collaborative material and occasionally delve into Zepellin’s back catalogue as the mood takes. He’s enough of a wise old head to know that a full-scale Zepellin reunion would merely tread old ground and look like a cash-in. This way he can freshen up material from times gone by while indulging his curiosities. On tonight’s evidence he’ll continue to attract a devoted following, whichever path he chooses to walk.
Robert Plant played: Down To The Sea, Angel Dance, House Of Cards, Please Read The Letter, Misty Mountain Hop, Tangerine, Trouble, Satisfied Mind, Move Up, Satan, Central Two O Nine, Monkey, Houses of the Holy, Can’t Buy Me Love, Tall Cool One, Gallows Pole. Encore: Harms Swift Way, Rock & Roll. Encore 2: 12 Gates To The City, I Bid You Goodnight.