Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters in Boston

Matthew Shelter on September 22, 2015

Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters

Blue Hills Bank Pavilion

Boston, MA

September 20

It’s a fair bet that most of the fans who show up to see Robert Plant these days are there for whatever Zeppelin songs he may throw onto the setlist. And despite Plant’s well-publicized reluctance to join a Led Zeppelin reunion, he has not been stingy when it comes to performing tunes from the legendary group on his own, with roughly half the set list on recent tours being comprised of Zep classics. What fans may be surprised to find, though, is how good the non-Zeppelin tunes are, particularly those drawn from last year’s lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar, which Plant recorded with his current backing band, The Sensational Space Shifters.

Plant and co. opened their recent show at Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion with one of those new songs, “Poor Howard,” a funky, upbeat number that set the tone for much of the evening. What followed was an alternating of Zeppelin tunes – “Trampled Under Foot,” “Black Dog,” a majestic “The Rain Song” – with tracks from the new album – “Turn It Up,” “Rainbow.” The Sensational Space Shifters do not attempt to replicate the classic Zeppelin sound, instead bringing their own take to the music, where a dominant sense of rhythm replaces the crunch and slash of Led Zeppelin. The result is something akin to what might have happened if Little Feat had been handed the Zeppelin song book.

They turned the blues classic “Spoonful” into a rhythm-and-blues classic, highlighted by an extended fiddle solo by uber-talented West African musician Juldeh Camara. Camara’s fiddle – actually a ritti, a one-string fiddle – came to the fore again during a mesmerizing jam that paired Howlin’ Wolf’s “No Place to Go” with “Dazed and Confused.” But if you had to pick a Zeppelin song that is tailor-made for The Sensational Space Shifters, it might be “The Lemon Song,” one of the funkier early Zeppelin tracks. The band easily found the groove on this song, and then segued seamlessly into two newer tunes – “Little Maggie,” off of lullaby… and “Win My Train Fare Home (If I Ever Get Lucky),” which was featured on Plant’s 2002 Dreamland album of cover songs. Back to the classics, they closed out the regular set with an extended “Whole Lotta Love” jam that also included snippets of Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” before returning for an encore highlighted by “Rock and Roll.”

Look, I pine for a Zeppelin reunion as much as any fan, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t blame Robert Plant for doing what he’s doing. His reluctance to stand still musically has served him – and us – well over the last decade or more, allowing him to explore new artistic avenues with a variety of talented musicians while still keeping ties to his past.Our own selfish desires aside, it’s hard to argue with the path he’s chosen. His collaboration with The Sensational Space Shifters, both in the studio and on stage, has brought new life to old classics and exposed a broad swath of fans to some excellent new music they may otherwise have never discovered.