Robert Plant is enjoying the view from one of his favourite places: Nob Hill, the 115-metre promontory that rises over downtown San Francisco. Looking north, he remarks on a forbidding rock rising from the Bay Area’s namesake bay: Alcatraz. Or, as he puts it, “My former career.”
As an escapee from the island’s infamous penitentiary?
“No,” the fabled singer replies. “Just being in Alcatraz and not getting out. But I’m out now!”
That he is. The man who could have been crippled by public expectation, hobbled by family tragedy, and chained to the legacy of the most notorious of 1970s bands is free. And he’s savouring the taste.
“I am a man of some considered joy, and I relish that,” he says, and he really does sound carefully, thoughtfully, gratefully happy.
Much of that has to do with his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, a polymorphous group of folk and rock virtuosos that currently includes guitar texturalist Liam “Skin” Tyson, formerly of the band Cast; Justin Adams, a gutsy, blues-based guitarist who’s made three extraordinary albums with Gambian griot and former Space Shifter Juldeh Camara; and multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman, a young star on the British traditional-music scene.
“I’m in the best band I’ve probably ever been in in my life,” Plant says. “Maybe we’ll never get the same recognition [as that ’70s band], and maybe people will turn their noses up here and there, but fuck it, it’s such a communion. And it’s another world now. We’re in another world from the golden days, in inverted commas.”
Naturally, Plant can’t entirely escape his past. Nor does he want to; in fact, sometimes he seems to be playing with it. The archetypical woman whose bustling hedgerow enlivened “Stairway to Heaven” returns as the subject of “The May Queen”, the first track on the Sensational Space Shifters’ brilliant new Carry Fire, while that record’s “New World…” is another immigrant song, albeit a more pensive, less pillage-driven venture into the unknown.
“Nothing’s changed, really,” Plant says. “Time’s moved along, but I’m drawn to the same abstract… I suppose landmarks, or milestones, in the stuff that makes me tick.”
Unsurprisingly, he takes a similar big-picture approach when discussing “Carving Up the World Again… A Wall and Not a Fence”, which has only gained relevance since it was written. Plant doesn’t mince words when it comes to the sad condition of the United States—“The absolute confusion that’s reigning, intentionally, doesn’t allow anybody to get a grip on anything, and it divides the nation,” he says—but he points out that the present occupant of the president’s chair is not the first despot with an appetite for division and conquest.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” he says. “I don’t know where it began. Was it the Minoans, or was it the Egyptians? Maybe it was the Persians. Who knows? Maybe it was the Turks, maybe it was the English, maybe it was the Germans in Polynesia.…Maybe it was everybody just grabbing everything.”
History, he adds, often appears “like a kind of armed raid into the world by anybody who could actually move anybody else out of the way”.
All the more reason, then, to find comfort and joy in music. The Sensational Space Shifters, he points out, are a truly collective undertaking. Part of his role is to “lead the charge”, but the songs are written collaboratively and the credits are shared.
“When we make these pieces of music we kind of hammer them together with, you know, little tacks and rusty nails and stuff,” Plant explains. “We take a piece from here and add it to that; we build it up like some kind of unruly feasting hall of music, and I guess achievement, in our little world. But I’m not asking anybody to fall in love with it, except for us.
“If the flowering of the song gets to that place where I can walk away from it and feel warm—if all of us can, as Space Shifters—we know the job’s kind of been done.”
Asked if he has any final words to impart to his listeners, the singer pauses for a moment. “I can tell you that I want Mexico to win the World Cup,” he says. “That’s nice and trite, but it’s filled with sincerity because it’s a country of great passion that, within and without, is hammered quite regularly.
“But all that aside, I’m just happy to do what I do, and I’m loving it more than I could have ever imagined. So that’s a pretty good testament, because I could still be in the trap.”
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (June 29), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.More