This was a Robert Plant show… but Patty Griffin stole it
Robert Plant at the HMV Forum, Kentish Town, July 12, 2012
Plant did a fine and brave thing when he turned down squillions of dollars and refused to continue the Led Zeppelin reunion after their one-off gig in 2007.
He had just made the best album of his post-Zep career, a series of cover versions with country star Alison Krauss called Raising Sand.
There was no sense in giving up this bold new direction to reconstruct the glories of 40 years ago with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
So even when a Raising Sand follow-up with the demanding Ms Krauss didn’t work out, Plant dived straight into a new collaboration with producer Buddy Miller which brought in singer-songwriter Patty Griffin (an enormous talent) as his new vocal foil.
The result was Band Of Joy, another album of carefully chosen covers.
When it came out in 2010 it didn’t set the world on fire like Raising Sand, but I loved it, and was disappointed when I had to miss the tour. But no matter.
Two years later, Ms Griffin is still part of his new band the Sensational Space Shifters. So off I went to see them on Thursday night with high expectations.
And… I just wish I hadn’t bothered.
Mostly because the sound from my seat four rows back on the balcony was dire. Truly terrible. Booming bass, muddy middle and very little treble to speak of.
It was at least five years since I’d been to the Forum and I’d forgotten how bad its acoustics can be. I spent half of the show wandering around the venue trying to find a sweet spot where it sounded better You could hear a few more high notes from the bar at the very top of the building, but people were standing three-deep at the rail.
The wall of aural mud was slightly thinner at the back of the crowd downstairs too, but by that time it was too jam-packed to force my way to a point where I could see.
But it wasn’t just the sound. For me, Plant’s choice of songs signaled a lurch back into the style of his earlier solo career, which I’m afraid I had never rated. Not a single track from Raising Sand or Band of Joy.
Instead, the band began with a plodding Bukka White blues and continued with one of his older solo tracks.
When they got as far as the fifth number with no sign of Patty Griffin, I began to think that going home and catching up with the ironing would be a better use of my evening. But then she did come on, and things looked up a bit.
First her voice cut through the mud to the give the old Led Zep tune Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp some definition.
Then Plant stepped out of the spotlight while she sang three of her own numbers. This was the high point of the evening for me, particularly when they played her gorgeous gospel song Standing.
Incidentally, the internet is awash with reports that Robert Plant and Patty Griffin are an item and may even be married. I can only report that there were no clues to this in their body language on stage.
The set included no less than five Led Zeppelin songs played in fairly radical re-interpretations with acoustic and African instruments.
I had been looking forward to these because they sound thrilling on an Artist’s Den DVD that Plant has recorded in Nashville with substantially the same band. Sadly, the Forum’s formidable sound barrier filtered out anything remotely thrilling from Friends, Black Dog, and a medley including Whole Lotta Love.
The final encore of Gallows Pole was much better in its sheer walloping drive, but it was too late for me. I was still thinking of all the shirts I could have ironed. To add a little perspective, I spoke to two sets of friends who were also at the gig.
One whole family of Zep/Page/Plant diehards loved the whole thing, though they conceded that the sound upstairs wasn’t the best they had heard. And a couple who were crammed like sardines four bodies from the stage said it all sounded wonderful to them.
Memo to self: never darken the door of the HMV Forum again. And don’t let the ironing get so far behind.