Second only to Elvis Presley, Robert Plant helped create our idea of the white male rock frontman. It wasn’t just his bared chest, either — much like Elvis wasn’t just the thrusting loins. Plant arrived during the breaking wave of the hippie-era bands, with long hair and melodramatic (and slightly fey) moves that contrasted the low-key norm of ’60s superstars from Beatles to the Band. He was pure theater and ambivalently sexed. Metal was not the only social movement that arrived here via Zeppelin.
But the look was only half of it. Plant’s banshee tones and big power chords spawned voices ranging from Heart’s Ann Wilson and Geddy Lee. Lyrics that embraced Gollum and squeezed lemons helped open crazy doors, too. But in conversation, what emerges is Plant’s lust for big music-making. After chasing a number of folk idioms like bluegrass, he seems gloriously happy to rock again. Which is good, because it’s been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely time.
How are you, and where are you in the tour? I’m feeling slightly left of center right now. We’re in Austin, Texas, and I saw an awful lot of friends last night. I played hard, the band played hard and long, and then afterward we played long into the night, and I feel like I knocked 25 years off my life. This morning I’m feeling okay, I guess. But this was one of the best shows I think I can ever remember.
My first Robert Plant show was Led Zeppelin, August 1, 1969, at the Earl Warren Showgrounds here in Santa Barbara with Jethro Tull opening. Surely you must remember that show. I remember Jethro Tull. You know, the funny thing I remember was that they had this right-wing management team with this ironclad edict that no one from this band could fraternize with anyone from any other band. The bass player got fired because he came out and played with us after the show when we were out being boys. But God bless Ian Anderson.
The last time I saw you play was the Raising Sand show with Allison Krauss. It seems to me that a life that spans such diverse aesthetics is fairly blessed. Well, it doesn’t exactly drop into your lap; you do have to go fishing around for it. I mean, it was great meeting Allison, and let me right off the bat just say that she is the most incredibly talented person with this wicked sense of humor. That was a project that began and just kept picking up steam as it rolled along. In a way we had been on the same journey, but it really became something driven. I learned so much about American music. And I remember when we first started the tour in Louisville, Kentucky, and Allison was standing in front of the drums, and I thought it was marvelous she said she couldn’t hear herself think. But it was definitely wonderful, and I got to meet Buddy Miller and the whole Band of Joy came about because of it, because of us trance channeling Mavis Staple.
>In 1990, when talking about Led Zeppelin’s inspirations, you said, “We just bought The Incredible String Band’s album and followed the directions.” I have heard this quote a lot, but it’s very true, especially in the arena of our Celtic roots. You know, we spent a lot of time with American music as our inspiration, but we kept returning to that more abstract root that made us absurdly Brittanical. I saw the String Band as real dream weavers, and layered into all of this is a sense of peace, soliloquies of pure charm, riddlings, and joy. In some ways I think musicians have a great responsibility to promote all those things. It should be some sort of code for us. And yet then there’s the world around us that’s not really like that. You have Tony Blair resigning from the government when actually he should’ve been answering to the high courts for war crimes at The Hague. Instead he becomes a Catholic, and he’s made the ambassador to the Middle East, and you think what a fucking mess all of this is. And that dancing around with the String Band, no matter how alluring it is, well, we were just wet behind the ears is all.
The new band, the Sensational Space Shifters, is you, John Baggott, Liam “Skins” Tyson, and Juldeh Camara, who you played with before, right? Yes, we were The Strange Sensations; that was just before I ran off with Allison. I began to see myself as a kind of houseguest here in America, so I decided to come back and kick some ass. I called them up, we had a couple of amazing rehearsals, and now here we are, and it’s a juggernaut, churning and humorous. It’s so funny because Juldeh is from Aftrica, and he didn’t grow up hearing Zeppelin or the Beatles, and when we start playing a song and the crowd just roars, he says to me, “Uncle, what is all this shit? I love it here.” The songs we’re playing — the whole Delta thing — is completely appropriate to African music. Maybe there’s a differential of 250 years, but the music makes perfect sense to villagers in Gambia, and [Juldeh] plays it on a one-string violin. The crowd loves it. Sometimes I hear it all through his ears, and it’s so amazing. Then we have a show like last night, and I feel the spell of The Incredible String Band come into its own. You know the word “whelm”? I love that word. That’s what I always thought music should be like: overwhelming.
Before you go, I have to ask you, as a lifelong Tolkien fan, what you thought about the Hobbit movie. You know I haven’t seen it — I haven’t had time — but I saw the Lord of the Rings films, and I wasn’t crazy about them, mainly because they’re all about spectacle. But, you know, when I read the books, they kind of dissolved into me. I used them in songs, you know, like “The Battle of Evermore” and “Ramble On,” which, well, I just want to hold up my hand and say, “Okay, I was 21 when I wrote that.’ [Laughs.] I think the real message of the books is lost in the movies. When I first came over to America and I saw “Frodo Lives” painted on walls, I thought that was beautiful. I’ve yet to see The Hobbit, but my grandchildren love it. I’ve seen enough CGI battles; my life is already full of them.
So can we look forward to a return engagement: Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull can play Santa Barbara in 2019? I’ll book the hall. Wouldn’t it be nice? But I think it would be better if Ian Anderson catered it — we could have salmon, because he has a salmon farm now. Bless him, I shouldn’t tease him for being so British and absurd. I think we’re all absurd in a way and blowing our own horns. I think that’s what it’s all about, blowing your own horn.
Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters play the Santa Barbara Bowl with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals on Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m. Call (805) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets and info.