Robert Plant: Winding on down the road

By Russell Baillie

On the eve of a New Zealand tour, former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant talks to Russell Baillie.

Robert Plant. Photo / Supplied
Robert Plant. Photo / Supplied

"Come on!" shouts Robert Plant a few seconds after he's come to the phone. He's calling to Arthur, his "once and future dog", out the back door of his country home at Machynlleth, near the Welsh border.

No, Arthur isn't, as Led Zeppelin fans might find amusing, a black dog. Though Machynlleth isn't far from Bron-Yr-Aur, the Welsh cottage where he and Jimmy Page wrote some of the pastoral folky tunes - including Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp - which appeared on 1970's Led Zeppelin III.

No, Arthur's a lurcher and Plant would rather he was inside, out of the cold, as he talks to TimeOut about his forthcoming tour, which brings him back to New Zealand for the first time in 30 years.

He claims he can't remember Led Zeppelin's visit here in 1972. But he does recall the excursion he made post the break-up of the band, early on in what's been an often haphazard solo career but which, of late, has proved him a rare restless spirit among Britrock's elder statesmen.

"I had a hit called Big Log in 1982 and I played the raceway in Auckland and it was very, very funny because it was full of Hell's Angels singing a ballad about stolen romance. Great big f***ing guys. It was bit of a brouhaha, really."

This time Plant heads here, not as the 20-something golden god who was the definition of the leonine 70s rock frontman, but as the 64-year-old who has spent much of the past decade following various musical muses.

There's been Raising Sand, the big-selling Grammy-winning Americana excursion with bluegrass star Alison Krauss. There's been his genre-bending World music-plus albums and tours with groups the Band of Joy and the Sensational Space Shifters (the group he brings to Auckland in April).

And, of course, there has been his brief return to being the howling voice of Led Zeppelin.

The band played a one-off highly acclaimed reunion show - with Jason Bonham taking over the drums from his father John, whose death in 1980 finished the band - in 2007 at London's O2 Arena.

The show, its tickets sold by lottery, was ostensibly a tribute to their old Atlantic Records boss, Ahmet Ertegun. The resulting Celebration Day concert film and album finally emerged late last year, meaning Plant, Page and John Paul Jones were back in the spotlight - with Plant remaining the hold-out against what could undoubtedly be lucrative further reunion shows.

"It was good what we did and it felt okay, you know?" says Plant, patiently explaining once more why he's not entertaining any further last blasts for Led Zeppelin.

"Did you ever see that film Grumpy Old Men? It can be like that when you have done something together and you stopped doing it when you were 32 and then half a lifetime goes by and you do a few things in between. The expectation and the media wind-up is what it is. So every time you say hello to one another the pundits are at it.

"So that bit of it is quite tedious but of course it is to be expected. But we had a good time. We played well that night. That was a fantastic thing to be able to do to, play that well and only do one gig. So it was all or nothing."

So after that show Plant went back to touring with Krauss, then eventually back into the studio with his Band of Joy cohorts for their 2010 self-titled album.

Plant, it seems, is a man who would rather get on with the next thing that excites him than cash in on his past.

Though online set lists of his recent touring with the Sensational Space Shifters show that Led Zep songs, like Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp, Whole Lotta Love, Black Dog, and Rock and Roll, still constitute about half his shows, albeit played by a seven-piece band which features one-stringed African violins, African banjos and the like among the usual rock band instrumentation. But he's not being a World music cover band of himself.

"The difference is about 300mph," he says. "This is powerful trance-driven music centred on loops and West African rhythms, which are not some sedate prog-music excursion. It's like a sort of West African juggernaut where Led Zeppelin finally go on holiday to Africa."

And if a Led Zep fan came along just wanting to hear Stairway to Heaven?

"It will be as exciting as you want it to be. But one thing is for sure, it is relentless and it won't be polite."

Plant was reunited again briefly with his Led Zeppelin colleagues when they received Kennedy Center honours late last year from President Obama. Something for the Machynlleth mantelpiece with the Grammys and his 2009 Commander of the British Empire?

"My kids just wanted to have a look in the house and a look at the decorations." he laughs about his excursion to Buckingham Palace. "I got stuck in the line with some postmasters from the Isle of Skye and they were in the gallery checking everybody out."

But as for the current and former residents of the White House, "that's a whole other world of appreciation for the arts - people are much more clued in ... Bill Clinton did a 15-minute oration of black Mississippi blues travelling through Chicago and stuff to invest Buddy Guy. These guys are switched on, they are cool, they are very funny on that level they got it covered. It's slightly different to Buckingham Palace."

But if he has an increasingly official number of laurels to rest on, Plant prefers to stay moving. There's another Band of Joy album on the way this year, which will again feature the supporting voice of his partner, Texas singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, whom he was reported to have married."No I didn't ... I like being a little bit silly."

As for musical marriages, Plant remains an enthusiastic international polygamist.

"I have always kept relationships with other generations of musicians who really mean what they are doing. Not flowery stuff. I am not at all interested in the confetti of popular music that much, but there are good tunes everywhere. You wouldn't be talking to me if I wasn't partly responsible for a lot of good tunes along the line and what I am doing now is putting them through the grinder and they are spitting out in a particular way.

"I've just played through Latin America for five weeks and I experienced amazing moments I would never have expected and the kind of Latino mix of German, Spanish, Italian, Welsh, Aztec, Inca ... whatever it is, their response to rhythm is amazing. An amazing melding of temperament and personality, it was great.

"You ain't going to get that by walking the Welsh Mountains. You might find Arthur but you won't get that great collision."

Who: Robert Plant, the former voice of Led Zeppelin
What: The Sensational Space Shifters
When: Wellington's TSB Bank Arena, Tuesday April 9; Vector Arena, Auckland, Thursday April 11

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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