There are those among us who consistently approach life through the wonder-filled eyes of a child, treating the world as a vast expanse of new experiences and places to explore. These seekers never ignore their past. Instead, they use each new bit of wisdom gained to expand and enhance previous experiences, treating life as a process of constant evolution.
Robert Plant is one of these people. And for this, we should all be grateful.
Forty-five years after the legendary Led Zeppelin played their first U.S. show in Denver, frontman Robert Plant returned to Colorado to play Red Rocks with his latest project, the Sensational Space Shifters. It’s fair to say this band, which features musicians from every corner of the musical spectrum, takes the concept of linear time and throws it out the window.
Despite his long career with many different bands, Plant knows his fans want to hear Led Zeppelin songs. But rather than playing each song note-for-note as it was written 45-50 years ago, the musicians of the Sensational Space Shifters masterfully blend the classics with various and sometimes logically-contradicting styles of music to create an entirely new experience for fans.
Weaving elements of bluegrass, traditional African instruments, hand drums, rockabilly and even electronic beats and sounds throughout rearrangements invites the audience along on a trip through Plant’s own musical journey. The result is pure magic.
Wednesday’s show opened with fairly faithful-to-the-original versions of Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and Plant’s solo song “I’m in the Mood for a Melody.” And then things got weird at the hands of long-time collaborator, Massive Attack’s John Baggott, as he amped up a version of “Tin Pan Valley” off Plant’s 2005 release “Mighty ReArranger “ with haunting, multi-layered trip-hop.
Yes, trip-hop. With Robert Plant. Told you it was weird.
Another track from “Mighty ReArranger” – “The Enchanter” – featured a sing-song rap in the African griot tradition performed by Gambian-born band member Juldeh Camara. African instruments were also heavily featured in a stripped-down version of “Black Dog,” adding a surprising depth and sweetness to a song better known for blistering vocals and – no other way to say this – blatant celebration of the timeless booty call.
Classic blues showed up too: both Howlin Wolf’s “My Country Sugar Mama” and an amazing mash-up of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” with Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love” were all tinged with rockabilly undertones. And, as Plant’s voice continued to warm up, he soared through fairly-faithful versions of the classic Zeppelin tunes “Going to California” and “Friends,” culminating in an unbelievable performance of “What is and What Should Never Be.”
Yes, it was weird. But weird is good. Although the world may try to force it, Plant has never let his work with Led Zeppelin completely define his sound. Two previous projects – the Band of Joy and Strange Sensation – were both explorations of sound and lyrical content, addressing political and religious issues through complex, multi-layered songs. Those projects were a departure from the lyrical content of Led Zeppelin, which, in Plant’s words last night are “all about hobbits and Vikings and stuff.”
But while Led Zep’s songs might not have been about the deepest of life’s mysteries, their sound became one of the biggest influences on modern music through their fearless exploration of the genres of blues, folk and even spirituals. And fearless is the key here – Zeppelin was never afraid to explore new ideas, and in doing so consistently reinvented themselves while staying true to their roots. Robert Plant is masterfully carrying on this tradition with the Sensational Shape Shifters. And so it comes full circle.
Laura Keeney is a community manager for YourHub Denver who also writes about technology, business and nerdy things for The Denver Post. She’s quite obsessed with Joe Strummer. Follow her @yhlaura and @onnabugeisha.
John Leyba is a Denver Post photojournalist and regular contributor to Reverb.