If, as recently reported, Robert Plant did turn down a king’s ransom to play the world’s enormo domes with Led Zeppelin, nights as good these at Leeds’s cosy O2 Academy perhaps explain why.
There’s an intimacy in a 2,000 capacity venue that allows him to chat away good-naturedly with the crowd and make throwaway quips that simply wouldn’t translate to a stadium horde.
His current band are as sensational as their name suggests. Long-time guitarist Justin Adams appears to be having a ball, as does fellow axe man Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson from the “psychedelic city of Liverpool”, as Plant puts it. John Baggott creates impressive swirls of sound from his keyboards and electronic bag of tricks while Juldeh Camarah adds a distinctive West African influence with his lute-like kologo and single string ritti.
The set draws from Delta and desert blues with light flavourings of bluegrass and Celtic folk. Classic Led Zeppelin songs such as Black Dog, Going to California and What Is and What Should Never Be are rearranged into less rocky and more subtle shapes.
Turn It Up, from his latest album Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar, has the parched, dusty feel of a latterday Tom Waits song. Rainbow is cheerfully dedicated to BBC Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce who, the bearded, leonine Plant jokes, became “overexcited” when the song became “a massive hit for us”.
Tin Pan Valley impresses with its light and shade, switching between trip hop-like atmospherics and full-on rock riffing; an update of the traditional folk tune Little Maggie is sweet and sensuous, with Plant’s vocal as soft as a caress.
The real fireworks are saved for two old favourites. As I Just Want to Make Love to You segues into Whole Lotta Love the place erupts. There’s an elasticity to this arrangement that you wish could stretch on and on and on.
Rock n Roll, cheekily introduced as “a folk song from the southern part of Britain from when people used to smile”, crackles with energy, bringing the evening to a close on a lusty note.
There may not be a Stairway to Heaven in sight tonight but it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be disappointed. Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters are outstanding.
Gig date: November 17