Robert Plant And The Sensational Shape Shifters – Westonbirt Aboretum
It was only in November last year that Robert Plant and his band played a stunning and almost intimate set at the Newport Centre; a gig so good that it ranked within the top five of the year. As part of the Forest Live concerts run by the Forestry Commission, Percy was scheduled to appear at the beautiful Westonbirt Arobretum near Gloucester along with another gig the following evening in Staffordshire. An unusual setting for a gig and another opportunity to see a true rock god and legend seemed a good idea.
Arriving just after 7:00pm, we parked the car, grabbed our camping chairs and followed the crowds heading for the arena. It was simply set out, with a large stage surrounded by many mighty trees, routine food stalls and bar to the right, merchandise and Forestry Commission stall at the rear and a healthy number of portable toilets to the left (remember the average age of this crowd was probably late 50s or older!).
Support was provided by Nugent And Belle, a five piece outfit fronted by two female vocalists/guitarists, Audrey Nugent and Amy Belle who provided a pleasant enough distraction from the hundreds of middle-class punters cracking open the fizz and Pimms whilst reducing the weight of straining picnic hampers. Nugent and Belle have a decent track record, opening for Robert Plant on a number of occasions and confirmed for a prestigious slot warming up the crowd for a one-off Counting Crows show later this year. They played a country style rock, which was pretty routine and nice enough to listen to although nothing that was particularly memorable, unlike The Last Internationale who really caught the imagination at The Newport Centre. Anyhow, Nugent and Belle got a decent reception and a 6/10.
9:00pm arrived, the strains of Sonic Youth faded through the PA and onto the stage strides Robert Plant and the Sensational Shape Shifters. There are really insufficient superlatives to describe the legendary frontman, but he really is every inch the rock god. Kicking off with The Wanton Song, Plant prowls the stage with the most incredible presence. He is in fantastic shape, his mane still very impressive and the six foot one inch height seemed much taller. However, regardless of the man’s genetics, it is his voice that remains the most captivating element of his armoury. Plant has also surrounded himself with a band of exceptional talent; the same personnel as listed in our November review, guitarists Skin Tyson and Justin Adams displaying dexterity and fluidity all evening; Tyson’s combination with keyboard player John Baggott later in the evening on a beautifully constructed The Rain Song was delicious. Drummer Dave Smith and bassist Billy Fuller provide a solid backbone whilst Gambian multi-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara adds depth and colour to some of the non-Zeppelin tracks, most noticeably on tracks from Plant’s most recent release, Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar such as Turn It Up, Little Maggie and the delicate Rainbow.
As always with Plant, the set list is littered with his heritage, but he has added his love of the Mississippi Delta Blues scene to avoid pure repetition of those Zeppelin tracks. Black Dog was delivered with a completely different aspect, and whilst Trampled Under Foot remained reasonably faithful, Dazed And Confused segued effortlessly with No Place To Go. A rare outing for The Lemon Song was a real treat along with a number of covers from some of Plant’s favourite Blues artists, including Crawling King Snake (Big Joe Williams) and Willie Dixon’s Spoonful. The Rain Song was possibly the most moving track of the evening, as I mentioned earlier with some superb interplay and guitar work from Tyson and Baggott.
A montage of classics closed the main set, with I Just Wanna Make Love To You, Who Do You Love? and as Matt noted in November, THAT riff for Whole Lotta Love, which really gets the hairs on the neck standing tall. I've seen this performed a number of times live and it never fails when either Page or Plant is standing on the stage. Quite brilliant.
A double encore of Satan You Kingdom Must Come Down followed by the inevitable Rock ‘n’ Roll, albeit in a completely reworked blues/world music style concluded a fantastic evening and another event that was worth every penny. Plant is the supreme frontman, relaxed, charming, witty, fantastically dry humour and totally confident in allowing the rest of the band to take centre stage for much of the time. He was often noted to be adding to the percussion with a tambourine whilst Adams, Tyson and Camara took centre stage.
In a year where many of the gigs I've seen are in soulless arenas, to be able to mix it up with alternative settings such as this or venues like Liverpool Cathedral (Anathema – March) makes the world of music so much more attractive and refreshing. Even a light sprinkling or rain at the end of the set and the 30 minute wait to get out of the car park couldn't spoil our evening and we saw broad smiles on virtually everyone as they left. 10/10