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

Saving Grace pictured at Womad in the summer. submitted photo

Folk warrior or rock cop-out?

In last week’s Herald we featured two alternative views of Robert Plant’s recent gig in Stratford. While reviewer Karl Walker raved about it (click here) Steve Sutherland had some serious reservations, read his review below.

Is there a more disappointing career decision on the face of God’s green earth than that of the poacher who decides to turn gamekeeper? I ask this question, rhetorically, because that’s exactly what Robert Plant, who fancies himself somewhat as a rural Staffordshire lad, has long gone and done.

Time was when he was one of rock’s great rogues, a thief who, in cahoots with his fellow suave villain Jimmy Page, wantonly stole tunes and lyrics wholesale from blues and folk standards, amplifying them electrifyingly and brazenly claiming them for their own. It was dastardly, criminal even, but by gad it was thrilling, Plant, a colossus above all the laws, a mover of mountains, the cock of all walks, a libidinous prowler purloining from the past, dressing it up real dandy and strutting it into the future with a flirtatious, sexy swagger. And it was, of course, brilliant.

But the Robert Plant who meanders out on stage tonight is no longer a Led Zep, he’s a custodian, a protector, deliberately unflashy and inconspicuous, the polar opposite of his former superself, now a mere man, playing by the rules, emerging bookishly from the shadows. Hidden within a band in the way David Bowie once foolishly submerged himself in Tin Machine, he fancies himself part of the furniture, playing equal vocal fiddle to Suzi Dian, a former student of Stratford College who’s a lovely enough singer who no-one’s here to see.

The set list, it must be said, is testament to Plant’s apparent good taste and likeable archaeology and he delights in telling little back stories as an aid to our understanding. And the songs are respectfully played by his very capable band – Oli Jefferson (drums), Matt Worley and Tony Kelsey (guitars) – and all received warmly by his audience. And there can also be no doubt that Plant is honest and earnest in his chosen role of DJ; the way he selects, inhabits and champions the authenticity of these songs is heartfelt. But I can’t honestly say I was moved by any of these renditions or really felt anything beyond appreciation.

These are deeply emotional songs, calling out for blood, tears and sperm to be spilled, not the polite rustling of parchments. And, again, if I’m perfectly honest, none of these versions are the best I’ve ever heard. The traditional song The Cuckoo, for instance, was more adventurously performed by Pentangle on their Basket Of Light back in 1969 and you can find a grittier version on Youtube by Doc Watson. Let’s face it, there’s never been a mortal being who could match Ray Charles doing Leave My Woman Alone, nor is anyone ever likely to mine the emotional depths of, again, Doc Watson ’s Your Long Journey since, as Plant tells us, he wrote it on the occasion of his wife’s passing. The 1930 version of Soul Of Man by the destitute and soon due to die Blind Willie Johnson and his maybe wife Willie B Harris is so devastating tonight’s take is vaudeville by comparison. You can find the traditional Cindy, I Will Marry You by Johnny Cash and Nick Cave that will rip your heart out.

She Cried (Gary Numan joke aside) doesn’t come remotely close to the melodrama the Shangri-La’s brought to it and as for Season of The Witch, Donovan’s original is spookier, the Richard Thompson version freakier and more paranoid, and Lana Del Rey’s recent update perfectly groovy and way witchier. It’s also interesting that in his telling of the tale behind Kerouac on-the-roadster beatnik Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy, Plant omits the bit about it being ripped off of Herman Yabokoff’s Be Still My Heart (case settled out of court) and anyway, it doesn’t carry the strange majesty of Nat King Cole’s 1948 smash.

The closest Plant and co get to emulating their influences comes with the gorgeous harmonies of the finale, And We Bid You Goodnight – not as raw and wonky as the Grateful Dead, not as quirky as Incredible String Band, but rousing nonetheless.

It’s mere speculation just why an artist so unique, admired and fabulously successful as Robert Plant should choose to turn his back on all his glories for a jukebox of cover versions – fear of failure, concern he can’t get it up like he used to? And it’s entirely up to him if he wishes to pursue the pilgrim path he’s chosen. But I’m afraid I do take umbrage at the several swipes he takes at his former achievements – belittling his Zeppelin days as faddish escapades of little consequence in comparison to the import of the ancient precious jewels he’s currently unearthing, like a vegan evangelist decrying the meaty meals of his past.

It just so happens the second gig I ever saw, after Rory Gallagher, was Led Zeppelin at Salisbury City Hall in 1972. It’s still, after thousands of other shows, one of the most enthralling, life-changing concerts I’ve ever attended, Plant in his pomp, Bonham a giant, Page a dark magician with his lightning violin bow. I saw them a year later, in Southampton, Plant cheekily dedicating Misty Mountain Hop to “the Rizla factory down the road.” Golden times. And Mr Plant would do well to remember there would be no audience at all for his Saving Grace had there not been a Led Zep in the first place.

Splendid as he and his new band are, there’s not a person in the crowd tonight who wouldn’t trade any of these numbers for a Ramble On, Evermore or Stairway.

Don’t get me wrong, this was a pleasant enough experience. It’s just that I don’t get why you’d settle for pretty good when you have it in you to be great. Listen, Robert Plant can do what the hell he likes – he’s earned it – but besmirching his past with sly winks and sly asides is surely overstepping the mark. I’ll remember Led Zep till my time of dying. I’ll have forgotten this by the weekend.