Storied British frontman Robert Plant has long since proved that his remit extends far beyond the rock lexicon. But with the consummation of his latest meticulously assembled group of co-workers, he seems more intent than ever on articulating fresh connections between the English Midlands and the American South.
The Sensational Space Shifters line-up boasts collaborators who’ve been with Plant for other recent field work, as well as some new confederates. Guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson are joined by West African instrumentalist-singer Juldeh Camara, Grammy-winning Americana mainstay Patty Griffin, bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith, with keyboards and samples by John Baggott. This brilliant aggregation played their first U.K. show in May, and Plant placed their U.S. live debut at the 25th Sunflower Blues Festival, a free event in the Mississippi locale that has been a lifelong spiritual home for him.
The town even provided the title of “Walking Into Clarksdale,” his 1998 collaboration with a pal from a former life, Jimmy Page. Friends with the festival organizers, Plant’s decision to accept their longtime invitation to the get-together was founded at least in part on taking his particular blues-rock potion back to the area where he first came up with the prescription.
He may have wondered exactly who he was taking it back to, since the crowd for this performance was far from an Afro-American blues majority and bore some resemblance, at stage front anyway, to a young white rock gathering. During early evening performances by James “Super Chikan” Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite and other blues seniors, one spotted at least a couple of rock chicks decked out in Led Zeppelin vests, as if in some ’70s superdome.
But such audience dissection is churlish in the context of a stunning performance that combined cutting-edge energy with historical exploration. Plant and the band have almost completed recording their first album together, but eschewed any unheard material in favor of a full-bodied bill of fare, replete with reimaginings from other catalogs as well as his own.
Organizers estimated that the Saturday night turnout had hit some 15,000 by the time the headliners elevated the festival’s energy levels beyond recognition. The band started as they meant to continue with Bukka White’s “Fixin’ To Die,” recorded by Plant for “Dreamland” a decade ago and others including Dylan long before. But this, and each of its successors, was no mere faithful reproduction.
Fuel-injected with the double threat of Adams and Tyson’s lithe guitar lines and the rich textures of Baggott’s box of tricks, the recorded songs were mere blueprints for more adventurous sonic landscapes. “Tin Pan Valley,” from Plant’s 2005 “Mighty Rearranger” set with the Strange Sensation line-up, spat like oil fat in a fire, its choruses a rocking playground for the exhilarating guitar assault.
Plant spoke knowledgeably about his personal debt to the Delta and how it got under his “epidermis” as a teenager who was lucky to see Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams and other heroes, during the British blues upsurge of the ’60s. “44 Blues,” most inspired by the Howlin’ Wolf version, led into another classic popularized by the Wolf, Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” and so the old and new continued to coalesce in the very heartland of this hallowed music.
To the backbone of Adams, Tyson, Fuller and Baggott, and Smith’s redoubtable drumming, Plant was able to field yet two more stars in Griffin and Camara. His creative and romantic pairing with Griffin has revitalized her entire stage persona, which glowed during her own “No Bad News” and the gospel-infused “Standing.”
Camara embellished Plant’s own love of African rhythms with instruments that looked as wonderful as they sounded, illuminating Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and even a retooled “Whole Lotta Love” in a mash-up with “Who Do You Love.” There were further trips to Zep territory for “Friends” and “Bron-Yr-Aur,” and one wondered if the rock giants could ever have had as much fun as this looked.
There was still time to big up a British blues champion, John Mayall, with a delightful take on his “I’m Your Witchdoctor,” and a finale of “Gallows Pole,” as Plant received an award for his services to the music of Clarksdale. The recognition felt entirely mutual, as summed up by his final words of the night, when he thanked the audience for their appreciation of “the living blues.”