REVIEW: Robert Plant’s Saving Grace at Stratford Play House

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Saving Grace pictured at Womad in the summer. submitted photo

Last Thursday a packed Stratford Play House witnessed a very special performance, legendary rock god Robert Plant introducing his new outfit Saving Grace. In the audience were such luminaries as musician Steve Winwood and broadcaster ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, as well as not one but two Stratford Herald reviewers. Below Karl Walker tells us about the gig, while Steve Sutherland takes a different view in this Thursday’s edition of the newspaper.

Well this is quite the coup for the Play House, your actual Mr Robert Plant is on stage telling an anecdote from his decades in the music business, and a sold out Play House is treated to one of the great voices of modern music embarking on a new adventure. This doesn’t happen every day, especially not here in Stratford.

A little background; the band is called Saving Grace and the flyer advises they’re ‘a co-operative including Suzi Dian, Oli Jefferson, Tony Kelsey, Robert Plant and Matt Worley’. Note this is not Robert Plant’s new backing band, this is a new group of five members, one of whom happens to be an internationally renowned singer in one of the biggest rock acts of the last 50 years (alongside a very successful solo career), but who in this context is just one fifth of the whole. So while Jimmy Page spends his days in planning application disputes with celebrity neighbour Robbie Williams, and John Paul Jones sits by the phone waiting for the next call from Dave Grohl to re-ignite indie rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, Plant has been the one to continue to carry the creative flame, consistently searching out like-minded souls to fuel his musical fire and keep his bar set high. And with Saving Grace he seems to have raised that bar yet again.

The set mostly comprises their interpretations of the songs of others, but this is no covers band routine. Rather, the approach and delivery suggest a performance of wholly original songs such is the attention to detail and care in which they are played. Some of these are unfamiliar tunes from the history of music, dug from America’s rich folk and blues traditions, rubbing shoulders with some eclectic cuts from the likes of Low, Donovan, Patty Griffin and The Everly Brothers, but all given a signature identity from this multi-talented band.

Kelsey and Worley conjure beautifully atmospheric soundscapes from their stringed instruments, weaving hypnotic melodies and textures over Oli Jefferson’s cultivated drums and percussion, while Suzi Dian proves a wonderful foil to Plant’s familiar, rich smoky-malt tones, her mellifluous voice illuminating the songs even more. We’re told that while studying at Stratford college she performed Tubular Bells at this very venue, a sprinkle of local pride only increasing the flow of goodwill directed at the stage.

The two lead vocals bring to mind the Raising Sand album Plant recorded with Alison Krauss over a decade ago but there’s a definite broader palette on offer here and the country stylings of that album have moved from Nashville to the north eastern states and the Appalachian mountains, mining a deeper seam of spiritual American roots music unadorned with the sentimental tinsel and glitter associated with country music’s home.

Appalachian bluegrass style features prominently with Worley’s lightning strike banjo picking a real driving force behind the likes of Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, Cindy I Will Marry You Someday and Your Long Journey while he shows he can hold his own in the singing stakes by taking the lead on Soul Of A Man. Meanwhile Kelsey provides mightily impressive guitar work on Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy and some haunting tremolo backing to the Dian sung Standing. Other highlights include a stomping, maracas shaking rock through Season Of The Witch and a gritty Ohio, the ferocious playing reflecting the dark subject matter of the perilous journey for African American slaves escaping the south for a new life in the free north.

The phrase ‘it’s all about the music’ has been derided somewhat these days, the claim being you can’t expect a successful career if you only focus on the songs. An online presence is mandatory (preferably before you’ve written any material!), you must be a bit weird (or a failure) if you’re not on Facebook and Twitter, and the patronage of an ‘influencer’ is a must have, or so the argument goes. Saving Grace are a welcome antidote to all that and a Marketing Manager’s nightmare because it IS all about the music. That’s the driver here, not how many likes they’re getting on social media. The product here speaks for itself.

But all good things must come to an end and ninety minutes of wonderful music is brought to a close with a rapt Play House entranced by all five of the band centre stage for an a capella turn through And We Bid You Goodnight. A spellbinding end to a splendid evening that was more than deserving of the standing ovation from all present. It felt like an ‘I was there’ moment for Stratford’s music lovers.

A tagline on the promotional flyer states ‘Nobody knows what it’s like’; well, we didn’t before but we do now. And it’s great.