The Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin's Docklands area opened in 2010. These days it goes by the less attractive name Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. It is mostly used for musicals, which is a shame as it is a great place for live music. On 3 December the venue hosted Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, with support from Devon folk musician – and new Space Shifter – Seth Lakeman.
As I am very familiar with Seth's music, his set was not as much of a surprise for me as it may have been for some of the audience, but I enjoyed his support slot thoroughly all the same. Seth played varied set, including the always impressive 'Portrait Of My Wife', a lovely new song inspired by and dedicated to teachers, and he finished off with his masterpiece, 'Kitty Jay'.
I was overjoyed to get tickets for Robert Plant's concert. I had seen him twice before, at Glastonbury. In 1995 as part of Plant & Page, and in 2014 with the Sensational Space Shifters, when his show was in fact the highlight of the entire festival for me. Robert Plant manages to be at once a mega legendary rockstar (the voice, the looks, the legacy) and at the same time to come across as really down-to-earth, likeable man. I read some interviews prior to this concert and learned that to keep his voice in shape Robert drinks cider and for pre-gig relaxation he likes to do a spot of ironing. He wore an indeed crease-free purple shirt; his hair in a pony tail. Strong incense was burnt on stage throughout the show. It wafted all the way up to row R where I was.
The set was a mix of original material, covers and Led Zeppelin songs. I am a great admirer of artists who do not do too much looking back and I think it is great that the 'eternally questing Plant', as Uncut calls him, continues to resist nostalgia.
The Sensational Space Shifters are a superb band led by Robert's long-time right-hand man Justin Adams on guitar, oud and other string instruments. Second guitarist Skin Tyson looks like a Bad Seed but is in fact a member of Liverpool band Cast, whereas keyboard player John Baggott has played with Massive Attack. Drummer Dave Smith doubles up in London fusion act Fofoulah and bass player Billy Fuller is one third of Beak>. Finally there was Seth Lakeman on fiddle. Seth's playing is very different to that of his predecessor, Gambia's Juldeh Camara, but is very well suited to the rock/country/folk/blues/world mix of Robert's solo work. The band were now three weeks into the 'Carry Fire' tour and the performance was faultless.
Robert introduced some of the songs in detail, talking about Joan Baez, Richard Thompson, Leadbelly and Bukka White. He joked about having to check the setlist to ensure he was not going into a spiel about the wrong song. He chose to ignore calls for Zeppelin stuff, simply by moving on to other things he wanted to chat to us about instead. He mentioned the 'posh surroundings' several times, adding that he missed Maureen's bar. He was referring to Maureen Grant, the legendary 92-year-old barmaid from the Olympia Theatre.
Last time around the band had played the Olympia, but that show had sold out so quickly that a bigger venue was called for. That had not prevented this show from selling out in no time as well though. It was an all ages audience, with a queue for the men's toilets that was longer than the one for the women's. It was that kind of gig. I spotted Kíla's bass player, who had always struck me as more of a rocker than a trad head.
The presentation was relatively simple, with some nice visuals projected behind the stage. Band members got to shine individually, while Robert stood at the back and played tambourine. It was all really unassuming and sympathetic. During 'Rainbow' all band members held hand drums and later on there was some impressive interplay between the two guitarists. Robert said what a joy it was to have Seth along on the tour (adding “And I really mean that”) and he was most apologetic when he forgot to introduce his drummer. The audience then prompted him, causing Robert to joke, “There is no cure...”
I find it hard to single out highlights. The entire thing was a highlight for me really. At a push I would say the lovely version of Led Zeppelin's 'That's The Way'. Other Led Zep songs that were played were 'Gallow's Pole', 'Misty Mountain Hop', 'What Is And What Should Never Be' and the final encore, 'Whole Lotta Love'. The whole show was a truly magical experience, the kind that makes you grateful for having witnessed something so extraordinary for a long time to come.