Yesterday, Michael posted a review of Robert Plant’s secret London show on Wednesday. Heading back from holiday in France, I missed that one – luckily, it turns out, since Plant only played seven songs then, and the show I caught last night at the Forum stretched to 20-odd.

Yesterday, Michael posted a review of Robert Plant’s secret London show on Wednesday. Heading back from holiday in France, I missed that one – luckily, it turns out, since Plant only played seven songs then, and the show I caught last night at the Forum stretched to 20-odd.



Those 20 include a good deal of covers from the excellent “Band Of Joy” album (hit the link for my preview of that one), a closing a capella rendering of the trad Grateful Dead standby, “I Bid You Goodnight”, and a clutch of, yep, Led Zeppelin songs.

Of late, a fair bit seems to have been written about Plant’s retreat from rock: about the restraint of his singing, his immersion in American roots music, and his resilient desire not to do this again. Certainly, Plant and his group – a brilliant, faintly psychedelic bar band, of sorts, who seem at once good-timey and uncanny – artfully muck about with the old Led Zep songs so that “Over The Hills And Far Away”, in particular, reveal their identity with a slyness that would impress even a curmudgeonly re-inventer like Dylan.

But still, as he coyly kicks his mic stand up behind him, Plant doesn’t seem like a man who’s rejected his heavy rock past, but one who’s merely decided to keep it on a leash. If anything, he and his bandmates appear to be ostensibly de-Paging the Zep songs, with “Rock And Roll” stripped back to, well, vintage rock’n’roll, fit and ready for Memphis juke joints and with a searing pedal steel solo from Darrell Scott.

Scott gets a solo (more often on banjo, mandolin or acoustic) pretty much every time the musical director, Buddy Miller, takes one on his electric, and during a terrific “Misty Mountain Hop”, it seems as if the latter, especially, is taking fluent but assiduous care to make sure he sounds nothing like Jimmy Page. Miller, in fact, plays densely and psychedelically for much of the night, so that “Misty Mountain Hop” is as close to West Coast acid stomp – an enduring Plant obsession, of course – as anything else.

The show’s pivot, and the Band Of Joy’s key song, perhaps, turns out to be “Gallows Pole”: a long, incantatory version that gradually accumulates intensity, harmonies and solos, and sits halfway between the downhome and the mystical – the former epitomised by Scott’s picking, the latter by Miller’s atmospheric strafe, a little like the better work of Daniel Lanois (which reminds me: we need to talk about some of Lanois’ recent business soon, too…).

For a supposed roots musician, Miller is highly skilled at adding an ominous, ethereal glaze to the overall sound – on something like Low’s “Monkey”, predictably enough, but also on notionally gutsier revivals like “Rich Woman”. For much of the show, the sound is much heavier than you’d expect from listening to “Band Of Joy” and “Raising Sand”: even the five-part harmonies, led by Plant and Patti Griffin, on Richard Thompson’s “House Of Cards” come couched in a certain brooding fuzz.

The six-piece swing, though, and a section through the middle of the show, where Miller, Scott and Griffin take leads, has a great roadhouse feel to it, especially when Griffin cracks open “Wade In The Water”. There’s a lot of gospel in the mix, though Plant is careful to give it an uncanny undertow, not least on a showstopping gothic take on “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”.

Ultimately, though, the image is of a rock star on a spectacularly rewarding trip through his own history and the history of the music he loves. Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” sounds like it comes from “Led Zeppelin III”. “Houses Of The Holy” sounds like it comes from “Raising Sand”. Valhalla he is coming back, circuitously, with a washboard.

1. Down to the sea
2. Monkey
3. House of cards
4. Please read the letter
5. Misty mountain hop
6. Rich woman
7. Trouble (Buddy Miller)
8. 12 gates to the city/ Wade In The Water
9. All the King’s horses
10. Satisfied mind (Darrell Scott)
11. Move up (Patty Griffin)
12. Satan
13. Central two o nine
14. Angel dance
15. Houses of the holy
16. Tall cool one
17. Over the hills
18. Gallows pole
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19. Harm’s swift way
20. Rock and roll
21. Goodnight