In arguably the finest large venue in the city, Paul Riley finds a rock icon far from playing it safe.
The Olympia, most frequently home to MMA and Cage Fighting, is probably the best large venue in town when it turns its hand to the musical side of life. It has had some stunning line-ups, and this writer has been lucky enough to see Tame Impala, and the legendary Africa Express show in the venue.
This writer has also missed out on Toots and the Maytals, Primal Scream, The Specials, John Carpenter, Foals and New Order, but the less said about that, the better.
A diligent few hours of research reveals that The Olympia was built as a circus, and that they used to keep lions and elephants in the basement (ok, I looked on Wikipedia for five minutes – happy?)
It is a glorious venue that befits the big names it attracts, and a visit from the legend that is Robert Plant certainly continued the tradition for big names.
Mr Plant, and that band he was in, do have a little bit of a conflicted feel about them. I am a diehard fan who has most of their albums on AA first pressing purple label vinyl (I know, I’m pathetic), yet am certainly a little uncomfortable about the provenance of a lot of their material.
As they progressed as a band, they became more original, but as our Dear Leader Mr Ponsonby likes to point out after a few shandies, the earlier the album, the more you find that a great deal of their material is actually inspired by (written by?) other people.
Those other people include the likes of Bert Jansch, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, Memphis Minnie…
The list goes on.
Sour grapes, because the influences they drew from sent the young Led Zep into the stratosphere, or genuine foul play from Jimmy Page and Co? They are a white classic rock band. The genre and their colour meant that, for better or worse, they had access to a wider audience – musical taste and prevailing racial prejudice played a big part in their success, but should they get the blame for that societal problem? I would also note that nicking/reinterpreting songs is commonplace in blues, folk and trad music, and perhaps Zeppelin‘s genre is what has made this such an issue in their case.
I will not delve further into the question of where inspiration and influence become plagiarism, but suffice to say in this case there have been a Whole Lotta Lawsuits from smaller artists.
They have frequently (but not consistently) spoken of those ‘inspiring’ artists, and that in itself may vindicate them somewhat, but this is a whole article in itself, and not one I feel up to writing today. I’m not even entirely sure which way I would decide if I did write it. Before I completely talk myself into a hole, I’ll just quietly move on to the show.
Supporting artist Seth Lakeman has been building his career steadily, and is pretty much at the peak of his powers. Standing alone in the middle of the stage, he delivered a stunning set. His guitar and vocals are incredible, but the true wonder is his fiddle. Combining numerous folk traditions, his playing is powerful, pacy and exhilarating. You may think that supporting someone such as Plant would be a daunting task for any artist, but Lakeman‘s final song, Kitty Jay, was one of the highlights of the evening.
It also set the tone very well, because for those who do not know Plant outside of Zeppers, his musical path after their breakup has been wide and varied indeed.
Plant could have spent his post-Zeppelin life churning out uninspiring middle of the road rock music for lots of cash, becoming increasingly embarrassing and irrelevant as he got older, because let’s face it – that kind of Rock n Roll is a young person’s game. It would have been easy money, with his legions of fans.
Instead, he immersed himself in the traditional music of many different countries including Mali, Morocco, Spain and Pakistan, not to mention the folk and roots of the UK and US. A particular highlight is the 2007 album Raising Sand, a collaboration with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, for which the pair won numerous Grammy awards.
Plant‘s stage presence is personable and self-effacing. He frequently plays the role of facilitator rather than the Star of the Show, standing back out of the spotlight and enjoying the virtuosic performances around him. He is clearly loving the act of performing and working with the rest of the band, and that passion is also shown in the variety of the set.
His vocal range is obviously not the same as it was when he was a kid. The electric excitement I was hoping to experience still happened when he hit high notes and went a little old school on some tracks, but unlike a number of other artists who mindlessly bash away at the same style while just clearly being ‘past it’ (Axl Rose anyone?), Plant has matured and seemed comfortable in a more reserved and refined performance.
I was deliriously happy during the Led Zeppelin tunes That’s the Way, Misty Mountain Hop, In the Light and finale Whole Lotta Love, as well as Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, which Plant prefaced by talking about its writer Joan Baez and the impact she had on him.
Other stand-out tracks included a barnstorming rendition of Richard and Linda Thompson‘s House of Cards, Bukka White‘s Fixin’ to Die and the traditionals Little Maggie and Gallows Pole.
His current band are predictably boss, with notable mentions going out to guitarist Liam Skin Tyson (Cast) and keyboard player John Baggott (Massive Attack). Most pleasing, however, was the fact that Seth Lakeman remained onstage. Throughout the show he dipped in and out, that fiddle taking the lead on many occasions where you may have expected a guitar solo.
On their own, that group of musicians are up there with the best I have seen, but of course the icing on the cake, once we walked out of the venue, was the fact that we had just seen Robert Fucking Plant, in the flesh.
Dare I say that his critics should watch this band perform before writing him off as a purveyor of dad-rock ripped off from other artists? I think I do.
Picture courtesy of The Olympia.