Robert Plant: The World’s Roar (Cover Story Excerpt)
As 2014 comes to a close, we're honored to have the legendary Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant grace the cover of our December issue. Below, enjoy an excerpt from the article where Plant speaks to Alan Light about his new band, The Sensational Space Shifters and their latest album, Lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar.
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At first glance, you don't notice him.
It’s a little hard to believe—he is, after all, one of the most recognizable, distinctive and flamboyant frontmen in rock-and-roll history. But right now, with his band of seven musicians arranged more or less in a circle on the stage of the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., the guy in jeans and a faded gray T-shirt, with his hair tied up in a bun and his back to the empty room, just seems like one of the group.
But then, they count off the song and that voice comes out, and he doesn’t need to turn around for you to know that it’s Robert Plant. Still, he’s not delivering the keening, spine-tingling wail that filled stadiums with Led Zeppelin; it’s a more nuanced sound he’s working with as he rehearses with his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, on this September afternoon prior to the first stop on a quick, eight-show U.S. tour. And as they start to play, it’s the song that takes a minute to register—it’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” the searing Blind Willie Johnson blues lament that Led Zeppelin turned into a jagged assault on the 1976 album Presence, arranged instead with a loping, back-porch rhythm and multi-part vocal harmony.
This air of uncertainty all makes some kind of sense. Plant has spent his recent years sneaking up on expectations, surprising people with his musical choices and earning a newfound, hard-earned respect that no one would have anticipated. For decades after Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980—following the death of drummer John Bonham— his solo career was of sporadic interest; the music was never subpar, but his direction often felt aimless or uncertain. When Plant joined forces with his old foil Jimmy Page in the ‘90s, merging his own interest in Arabic styles with the Zeppelin catalog and similar blues-based approaches on the MTV Unplugged project No Quarter and the Walking Into Clarksdale album, the results were both successful and inevitable letdowns. Following those projects, several Plant albums in a row failed to break the Top 20.
Then came the pivotal year of 2007, when he joined Page, John Paul Jones and Bonham’s son, Jason, for the triumphant, one-night- only Led Zeppelin reunion show at London’s O2 Arena —more than 20 million people around the world entered the ticket lottery—and also released Raising Sand, his collaboration with bluegrass colossus Alison Krauss that won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. It was followed by another glorious exploration of American music, 2010’s Band of Joy, and a magnificent tour. Four years and a lot of global travel later comes his 10th solo album, lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar, a swirling, thrilling blend of African, Middle Eastern, rock, blues and folk music that may be the most daring work he’s done since the Zeppelin days.
Seated in his spacious and homey, though not extravagant, dressing room—overlooking the local train station—a single flowing, print shirt hangs on a rod, waiting for show time. The 66-year-old Plant insists that he’s been on the same mission all along. “I think so, starting from when I was about 15,” he says. “It’s the flexing of public perception and people buying into the idea that’s fluctuated. In the beginning, there was nobody there—just an empty room, maybe three people. And in 1965, it was free to get in! And then through time, the amazing pinnacles of exchange with energy, which included absurdities and cherry bombs and social disease and penicillin immunity, and stress and some joy, and freedom and capture and prisons—all those things spin around, and we end up here, in this fancy dressing room. Not bad, all things considered.”
Plant is the rare celebrity who is actually bigger than you imagine—long legs, broad shoulders, huge head. He laughs often as he stretches out across a low sofa, sipping water and recounting his journeys and adventures. (He displayed his sense of humor on some recent television appearances, singing doo-wop into an iPad with Jimmy Fallon and jokingly handing Stephen Colbert a joint on air.) Mostly, though, he lights up when he talks about music, drawing connections, dropping very difficult-to-spell names, describing sounds and voices and rhythms from far-flung corners of the earth. His enthusiasm and sense of discovery only seem to have expanded with time.