Robert Plant mixes old and new at ACL taping

Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters at ACL Live, Monday, March 21, 2016. Photos courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photos by Scott Newton
Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters at ACL Live, Monday, March 21, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton

When Robert Plant announced at the end of Monday night’s “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live that he and his Sensational Space Shifters would close with “an old English folk song,” the crowd didn’t seem to be buying it. Sure enough, the band kicked in to Led Zeppelin’s classic “Rock and Roll,” sending his die-hard fans home with one more classic memory in a show loaded with them.

Of course, at this point, “Rock and Roll” kind of IS an old English folk song. One of five tracks in the set that dated back to Led Zeppelin’s landmark first four albums, it’s nearly half a century old now. At 67, Plant has grown well beyond his rock star days, and yet those old songs seem to have caught up with him, sounding revitalized in the context he now places them alongside the more recent work he’s created with the Space Shifters.

The set drew four songs from “Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar,” the 2014 album that Plant and this six-piece crew — guitarists Liam Tyson and Justin Adams, bassist Billy Fuller, keyboardist John Baggot, drummer Dave Smith and multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara — have been supporting on the road for the past two years. That album’s title hinted at the show’s dynamic range, with the roar of tunes such as “Turn It Up” and the Led Zep opener “The Lemon Song” tempered at times by more acoustic fare such as “In the Mood” and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”

Robert Plant at ACL Live, Monday, March 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton
Robert Plant at ACL Live, Monday, March 21, 2016. Courtesy of KLRU-TV/Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton

As he has done often in his solo career since Led Zeppelin called it quits in the 1980s, Plant sought to push the connections between rock ‘n’ roll and traditional African music in this performance. Adams and Camara used traditional African instruments on many songs, most notably Camara’s fiddle-like goje, while Tyson’s occasional switch to banjo underscored the African-to-Appalachian musical connection. On the recent album’s highlight “Rainbow” — which they reprised in the encore to get a better take for broadcast — most band members thumped hand-held bendir drums, kicking up the rhyhmic impact of the song.

But even when the band whirled into a maelstrom on crowd-pleasing Zeppelin staples such as “Black Dog” and “Whole Lotta Love,” the focus was still squarely on Plant’s voice, which remains not just powerful but dominant. It’s the whole presence, really, that leaves an impression: Dressed entirely in black (as was the whole band), sometimes strolling the stage with the mic stand and sometimes just listening keenly to the detailed playing of his bandmates, Plant commands attention. And when he tells little stories between songs — whether referencing his brief stint as an Austinite a couple of years ago, or musing over what Charley Patton was writing about in the song “Spoonful” — he speaks not with a rock legend’s grandeur but with a casual, good-natured grace.

Monday’s show was the last of three appearances in Austin over the past few days, following a Sunday ticketed concert at ACL Live and Wednesday’s cameo at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW paying tribute to the late local DJ Paul Ray’s “Twine Time” radio show.

Set list:
1. The Lemon Song
2. Rainbow
3. Black Dog
4. Turn It Up
5. Spoonful
6. In the Mood
7. No Place to Go/Dazed and Confused
8. Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You
9. Little Maggie
10. Fixin’ to Die
11. Whole Lotta Love (medley with I Just Wanna Make Love to You and Hey Bo Diddley)
Encore:
12. Rainbow (retake)
13. Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down/In My Time of Dying
14. Rock and Roll

Author: Peter Blackstock

Music writer for the Austin American-Statesman and austin360.com. Twitter: @Blackstock360

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