Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters - Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Written by Dean Forte
Amongst a full house of rock ‘n’ roll fans, from teenagers to grandparents, 2 young men took their seats at Rod Laver Arena and discussed a mythical event in their fathers’ lives that went down in folklore. In 1973 their fathers witnessed Led Zeppelin at Kooyong Tennis Centre in their full glory, gaining entrance without their tickets being stubbed and cunningly on-selling them through the barbed wire fence just as Page, Plant & co. took to the stage.
40 years on, their sons witnessed something almost as magical, as Robert Plant, with the Sensational Space Shifters, breathed new life into some Led Zeppelin classics as well as a number of songs off his solo album The Mighty Re-Arranger, which glistened with West African tribal-esque beats and a psychedelic and folksy edge.
If there were any doubts as to whether Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters had what it took to recreate and do justice to the Zeppelin material, it only took 2 songs for the audience to realise their fears could be laid to rest. Friends from Led Zeppelin III broke the crowd in before Tin Pan Alley launched into its mid-song riff-fest that brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation at its completion. To repeat – this was the SECOND song of the night, and it was not even one of the Zeppelin classics that brought it about.
It wasn’t all crashing riffs: there was the moodier Another Tribe and the amazing Going To California, which perhaps best highlighted Plant’s vocal talents. Giving the audience room to breathe, you could close your eyes and be back in the 1970s, such was the pitch-perfect nature of the voice that sailed blissfully over perfectly orchestrated arrangements.
Credit must also go to the Sensational Space Shifters – from John Baggott on keyboard and sound manipulation, to the twin guitarists of Justin Adams and Liam Tyson, not to mention Juldeh Camara on various African instruments throughout. Their performances did all the Zeppelin material justice, even if it deviated from the versions that we all know and love. Black Dog, for example, had its Space Shifters interpretation before launching into the rock ‘n’ roll version loved so much on Led Zeppelin IV.
More obscure moments such as Misty Mountain Hop and What Is And What Should Never Be were equally stunning, with Plant’s on-stage mannerisms just like they were back in the 1970s. You could feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck when Plant picked up the microphone stand and let out his trademark wail; it was a magic moment in time where you lost track of what decade you were in. Ramble On followed in the same path, being one of the songs performed that was given the full Zeppelin treatment, while Plant’s Mississippi Blues influences were highlighted with his cover of Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die.
Not satisfied with stunning the crowd with his performances, Plant’s quick wit was also highlighted throughout the show. At one point, he acknowledged a man standing up in the floor section with a beer in his hand with “Wait until Leonard Cohen hears about this!” whilst also making a number of jokes about Australia’s convict past. Even his shit-stirring had an endearing quality that I’m sure helped make him one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock history.
Whole Lotta Love closed out the main set, beginning with a rearranged Space Shifters impression before unleashing the riffs to close out a memorable show. After a brief interlude, the band was welcomed back on stage by the now fully upstanding crowd. The acoustic guitar work of Liam Tyson introduced Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, generating audience clap-alongs throughout, before Plant introduced the final song of the night as an “English folk song from when people used to dream in colour”. He mislead us as the unmistakable Rock ‘n’ Roll roared out, which as you would expect, was one of the highlights of the night.
As the crowd shifted out into the chilly night, those two young men mentioned earlier boarded a tram and headed on home to their respective addresses. As the conversation again changed to the experience their fathers once had those 40 years ago, they wondered whether their fathers would have imagined their sons, barely twinkles in their fathers’ eyes, seeing those same songs all those years later. And as fate would have it, like father like son, all without shelling out a single cent. The apple never falls far from the tree it seems, even 40 years on.