The ex-Led Zeppelin frontman brings his Band of Joy to the Waterfront
Living legend of rock ‘n’ roll Robert Plant has eschewed the trappings of superstar status. At this intimate-by-his-standards Belfast Waterfront show, Plant has no Persian rugs, no wind machines, no oxygen tent at the side of the stage – just a microphone, a mic stand and a large mug of what looks like herbal tea.
The erstwhile Led Zeppelin frontman shuffles onstage just after 9pm, to a deafening roar. Belfast has waited a long time to be in Plant’s presence again – since Maysfield Leisure Centre on September 23, 1988, on the Now and Zen tour, to be precise – and we are more than prepared to indulge his ongoing fascination with country, blues and Americana.
This six-piece Band of Joy bears no relation to the Band of Joy that spawned Plant and Zeppelin drummer John Bonham in the late 1960s. Instead, the name has been appropriated for Plant’s first full band project since the Strange Sensation in the mid 2000s.
It’s the final night of the group’s European tour, and spirits are high. ‘Welcome to another transcendental evening with the Band of Joy,’ coos Plant. There are no signs of his famously grumpy demeanour, though the stubborn streak that led him to nix a reputed $200million deal to reform Led Zeppelin is evident in the setlist.
It’s mostly selections from the new Band of Joy album, together with a handful of solo tracks, a few covers and the occasional Zep nugget. ‘Misty Mountain Hop’, ‘Tangerine’, ‘Houses of the Holy’ and ‘Gallows Pole’ are not the most famous songs in Zeppelin’s catalogue, but these reworked versions suit the laid-back vibe perfectly. There’s a Zep tinge to a lot of the new material, too, which tends to mix driving, bluesy pop with stomping, bass-heavy rock.
The audience are respectful during the quiet parts – no tedious shouts for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – and Plant responds in kind. ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah,’ shrills the beaming singer. ‘Baby, baby, baby!’ Clearly still having the time of his life at 62, Plant twirls his mic stand and mane like it was the ’70s all over again. ‘Before your father was born, something happened here,’ he murmurs, to the delight of the older audience members who recall March 1971’s Zeppelin show at the Ulster Hall, when they played ‘Stairway…’ live for the first time.
Plant isn’t too precious to allow his cohorts to each sing lead on a number (journeyman guitarist Buddy Miller on ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’, banjo, mandolin and pedal steel maestro Darrell Scott on ‘A Satisfied Mind’, co-vocalist Patty Griffin – ‘the queen of hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll’ – on ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’), but unlike that other hoary metal vet Axl Rose, who had to recharge himself every five minutes during Guns n’ Roses’ recent Belfast gig, the ex-Zep man remains onstage for the entire two-hour show, singing backing vocals and even digging out a washboard during the instrumental breaks.
‘Round and round and round we spin,’ shrugs Plant after an ecstatically received take on Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’. Deconstructed to suit the new sound, it is near unrecognisable apart from the vocals, yet remains a thrilling anthem. The Band of Joy bow out with a glorious, a cappella rendition of the Grateful Dead’s ‘And We Bid You Goodnight’. ‘See you in 35 years,’ chuckles Plant as he exits stage left. We’ll be waiting.