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Extended Play: Robert Plant

Posted by Sarah Rodman  July 21, 2013 08:30 AM

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In today's Sunday Globe we have an interview with Robert Plant, who comes to the Bank of America Pavilion on Thursday with his new group, the Sensational Space Shifters.

After exploring Americana and roots music in the last few years with a superb group of musicians, including Buddy Miller and Plant's close friend Patty Griffin in the Band of Joy, the former Led Zeppelin frontman is delving into what he's calling the "urban psychedelia of Bristol, England and West Africa." And he's doing it with some old friends with whom he’s worked on earlier albums like "Mighty Rearranger" --including Massive Attack's John Baggott—and new ones like riti player Juldeh Camera.  

As is often the case, I was able to ask more questions than we could fit into the newspaper, so here are a few of the others that Plant fielded.

When the singer came to the phone, he apologized for being a bit late, saying "Hello Sarah, I was just doing a bit of ironing."

Q. What are you ironing? Your hair?

A. Ironing my hair, yeah. You know I did actually once have my hair ironed for a birthday present. John Paul Jones decided that curly hair was not hip. So for my 21st birthday, which was 1969, he took me to a very hip haute-couture hair dresser's in London called Sweeney Todd, and they straightened my hair. 


Q. You should be glad they didn't off you and bake you into a pie with a name like that.

A. Yeah, it was a pretty interesting time. Sweeney Todd was right next to Granny Takes a Trip so you know what kind of world we were living in. (Laughs.)

Q. Well at least you remember it. Thanks for taking time to do this.

A. Oh no, let’s get it right. We’re entertainers, you can’t get miserable about talking it up because I love what I do… I'm just out there exploring musically and having a wild time. I mean yesterday was one of the craziest reactions I've experienced ever!

Q. Where was this? 
A. It was a riverside festival here in Portland, Oregon to bring in and raise funds for the food bank.

Q. Oh I read about this, this was the show with Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples, right? 
A. Yes, that's right. And I don't know, it just reminded me of those festivals back in god knows when, when I can't remember! It was really good. It was a very interesting and very varied, wild, young audience. It was fantastic. I do talk it up because it's different and it's really exciting.

Q. You've described the Sensational Space Shifters sound as part Massive Attack, part Led Zeppelin, and part Jefferson Airplane. Much of the music you've made could be discussed in similar hybrid terms. It seems like you've always been interested in layers and textures and the collisions of things. Are you ever surprised that you're able to find a new frontier for yourself?

A. Not really. I've got another one lined up which will incorporate these guys because now we've got a signature, and the next thing to do is to have original material. I've got about 30 new pieces and I had some good conversations recently with a very renowned soundsmith who’s worked with Dylan and U2.

Q. Is this Mr. [Daniel] Lanois? 
A. Yeah, I think what we can do is, if we do it right and we can work out our energies to bring them together successfully, we can blast the work that we've done in the past into a brand new place.

Q. You rework a lot of your older songs live. Is there a key to rearranging them to your liking? 
A. I think we just play around with them and we bring different time signatures in and out, so we visit them and then we enlarge it and then we mutate it and then we go back to it, so the crowd goes with us on the journey.

Q. At the Kennedy Center Honors it was touching to watch you tear up during the performance of "Stairway to Heaven" by Heart and the choir.

A. It's a weird thing to feel that songs that you've kind of walked away from and said "That was another time"-- I believed in that song, I believe in it now -- but when it becomes a sort of opus you have to look for something else. And so watching the girls from Heart, I was touched by it. But as it developed as a song and an arrangement it was just mind-blowingly beautiful, and I fell in love with the song again.

But also there's something ironic about it, because to be recognized and to be part of a combination of spirits that we were—once upon a time when we were young and uncluttered—when you get to the point where people are giving you gongs, you know that you've done something. But that's not what it's about. It's like "What am I going to do today or tomorrow?" That's all very well and all that pomp is fine, and I must say Americans generally make much more of pomp in a humorous and sensitive way than we do in Britain where you've got the Prince pinning something to your shirt and he doesn't know who the hell you are. (Laughs.) It's very funny.

Being alongside Patty through that was great because I was very emotional. I didn't like a lot of it. I liked the paraphernalia and I loved the people who I met. But I also found it so over the top to have musicians who have been aping Led Zeppelin for a long time continuing to do that, but taking the spotlight and almost taking the songs into some sort of pub rock thing. There's one or two musicians who always kind of keep popping up who generally massacre the songs that they touch.

And, of course, it was kind of funny in a way because the eulogy, or whatever it was, of our career ended up with a conversation from the podium directed at us and the room and the president, talking about Vikings [expletive] Hobbits. And I thought that's all very well but we did travel through India and Thailand. I took [Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy] Page through the mountains of Morocco and we wrote "Kashmir" and things like that, which we wouldn't have written if we were just meandering through the misty mountains.

I mean there's so much to Led Zeppelin that is folklore, and on that night it was slightly derisory and I did feel like I could've actually lobbed a television set at the guy who was making comments.

Q. Hopefully by the time Ann and Nancy began singing you were feeling better?
A. I still want to lob a television at that guy.

Q. You've had to sit through covers over the years. Have you heard from any of the artists that you have covered like Richard Thompson or Low?

A. I've known Richard over the years and he's a very interesting and charming and very humorous soul, and he thought we did a good job of it, I think, in his own sort of British way. And we went to see Low in London about six weeks ago and had a good time with them, and they loved what we did to their "Silver Rider" and "Monkey." I never heard from Dylan when I did "One More Cup of Coffee," but maybe he will speak.

Q. Tell me about the Love Hope Strength charity that you have out on tour with you. They work to help those with cancer and leukemia. Is there a personal connection to the charity or was it a recommendation?

A. They came to us and asked us if we would help them extend the idea and get volunteers, and it's working out really well. It's a big thing to ask people who randomly come to a concert for a DNA swab to match [as potential bone marrow donors], but they've already created matches for people who are in trouble. It’s been amazing.


Robert Plant Presents the Sensational Space Shifters at Bank of America Pavilion Thursday at 7:30 p.m. with Phosphorescent. Tickets are $39-$84.50. 800-745-3000. www.livenation.com.


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The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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