Friday, April 05, 2013

Robert Plant - Sydney Entertainment Centre


Last week the offer of a couple of tickets to Robert Plant at the Entertainment Centre came my way.  As the only Led Zeppelin song I know is that stairway one (an neither honestly have I been all that grabbed by his recent excursions into Americana which is more in my wheelhouse) so I didn’t jump at the chance.  That is until I later read that his touring band the Sensational Space Shifters included Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara.  The albums they have put out as a duo have made my year end favourites list over the last couple of years and once I ascertained they weren’t doing any JuJu sideshows I backtracked on my ambivalence and went.   

While I’ve explored many of the musical byways of the 70s – even if just out of curiosity and context seeking – Zeppelin isn’t one of them, I don’t actively dislike what I’ve heard but it edges out of my primary interests, just that other side of hard rock.   So seeing Plant put me in a unique position (for me) of seeing a major act, with the word “legendary” frequently and justifiably prefixing their name, in a large venue .... but about whom I was completely neutral.  I just don’t fork out that kind of money for anything less than my personal icons, and I reflected before the show that usually at that point outside the Entertainment Centre I am a mass of anxiety and excitement and a million adrenaline fuelled expectations and thoughts (if I’m not already inside camped on the rail.)    This was a whole different experience – big name, big venue but also a detachment and the height of my emotion was mild curiosity.   

I was seated on the stage right side rise, about a third of the way up and about in line with the last row of the seats on the floor.   Those big sheds always look smaller when you’re in them than you imagine so the view was fine, and the big screens were there as usual for closer detail.   One thing it gave me a good view of was the “gold reserve” floor seating which is my natural habitat. Even though they were wearing an array of Zeppelin shirts instead of Dylan or Bruce ones, it was sort of like having an out of body view of myself.  Baby I've been here before. I've seen this room and I've walked this floor – I surfed the night on their second hand electricity in a certain kinship.   Of course everyone was sitting with many desperate to stand, but kept in the seat by the gravity of our prevailing concert etiquette.   On recognising an opening rift (foreign to me but obviously meaningful to long time fans) a few would leap half up fists pumping before sinking back down again. I could see the seat area rippling with people bouncing in their chairs as much as they dared, like the meniscus on a glass of water arcing but not quite breaking.    Obviously there are excellent reasons people do not want to stand and many are not able to do so which should be respected but it’s clear to me the seated front section at rock shows works neither for the fans in general or, importantly, for the artists.  Plant made a few sarcastic comments about people sitting passively as did Bruce the week before (and he had a standing GA pit – night two in Sydney’s riff on “bums” and “asses” versus “arses” was particularly hilarious. Wish it was on YouTube.)  When Dylan played Centennial Park a number of years back I clearly recall Chuggy coming out, ciggie in hand, to yell at the people sitting on the grass in front of stage to go back to their seats  and Bob wouldn’t come out until they did – which is how you know he was bullshitting since Bob has made it known he likes people up the front rather than having to send his performance out into a cavernous void.    The encore brought everyone forward and the difference in atmosphere was noticeable.    I did have a bit of a detached feeling of observing but I had that same feeling a bit when I was in the nosebleeds for Leonard Cohen,  I think I’m just made to be down the front and the further away the less I’m acted on by the forces from the stage and around me.

Juldeh didn’t come out to join the band until the third song and I was concerned he was sick or something, but came on stage for some songs and off for some (surely they can find a triangle for him to play or something like Clarence did when he wasn’t needed on sax ....)  When he was there I loved his contributions, of course his interaction with Justin Adams was immaculate but it also gelled with the rest of the band and with Plant.       

Songs are like your neighbourhood, when you first move in and walk the streets the joint looks totally different than after you’ve lived there a few months or years and so since I was hearing most of songs for the first time I can’t pick out much about them individually except to say I enjoyed them and the band is definitely hot. He basically still has the voice.  It was very rock oriented naturally, but with a good smattering of slower, more acoustic numbers.   Unsurprisingly the ones that stood out to me (and still do a week later)  were the two blues covers which I certainly did know, “Spoonful” and “Fixin’ to Die” – the latter with particularly fantastic work from Justin Adams.   

He made a comment about it being “spot the tune” and that and other reviews have made clear how he has twisted and rearranged the original Zep tunes quite radically from the originals. He namechecked Bob Dylan here as someone else who makes the audience play spot the tune.  He then said however that Bob doesn’t take the piss out of himself like Plant does on which point I do disagree. An example is available from this show in fact.  The band was announced on stage by a voice over the PA listing all RP’s legendary achievements and status (six time Grammy winner etc etc) which I noted at the time was similar in structure to the intro Bob has had for years ( “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll. The voice of the promise of the 60s counterculture. The guy who forced folk into bed with rock. Who donned makeup in the 70s and disappeared into a haze of substance abuse. Who emerged to find Jesus. Who was written off as a has-been by the end of the '80s, and who suddenly shifted gears releasing some of the strongest music of his career beginning in the late '90s. Ladies and gentlemen — Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan!” ) but much more earnest.  Dylan’s is definitely a piss take, of himself and of the Random Dylan Cliche Generator media that follows him(1). Planty’s intro, in contrast, played very straight to me.  So for all your rakish English lord gone to seed charm Robert you are behind the other Robert in the piss take stakes, I’m afraid.

Another thing that occurred to me was how seldom I see acts where the lead singer is not also playing guitar (or banjo or mandolin, or accordion, sometimes piano. Occasionally something else. Or it’s the kind of music, like jazz, where the vocalist can get away with just swaying a bit in ways golden gods of rock may not).   My first thought about was how awkward it seemed, reminded me of trying to find something to do with your hands when public speaking, and how the mike twirling and whatnot was faintly silly. My second thought immediately thereafter was probably Robert Plant popularised or perfected that kind of stagecraft in the first place and its all the imitations since that have made it cliché.   So I enjoyed it without irony.   

So a very enjoyable night and a little more of my musical mindmap filled out.

(1) It's actually a direct quote from a newspaper article about him Bob has just lifted straight to mock. Comedy gold!!

1 comment:

TimDunlop said...

The intro was weird to me too. I was thinking: did you approve this, Mr Plant, or is this a management thing? Then during the show I thought he was pretty, um, accustomed to being a rock god, let's say. Not much warmth and a few ill-judged comments suggesting we maybe should've been a bit more adoring. Was probably meant to be 'ironic' but misfired imho.

Still, the music was awesome. Loved the band, but thought what a difference a Buddy Miller or a Doug Pettibone makes to these sorts of acts: not just great musos, but bring a whole personality to their playing. These guys lacked that je ne sais quoi, I thought.

On the whole, the reworked Zep stuff was good, but my absolute highlight was Going to California, which was almost note-perfect from Led Zep IV. So I guess in my heart of hearts I was really hanging out for note-perfect Zep songs.

But yeah, no complaints. Much better than last time I saw him, back in the 80s not long after Zep disbanded. Would happily go again.