Massey Hall. Toronto’s hallowed ground. Above the hardwood stage, down over the ancient seating, and between the marble-plated columns, reside faint reverberations of a century’s worth of performances by the giants of the industry. Antiquiet has been on hand for more than a few momentous performances in this inimitable setting.
Opportunities to embrace the warmth and history within these walls will soon dispel for a time. In July the iconic downtown venue will close its doors as a two-year state of hibernation, revitalization and modernization will commence.
The window is slowly closing to take in the grandeur of Canada’s preeminent concert hall. How apt a locale then for the only Canadian stop on Robert Plant’s Carry Fire tour, with his latest backing band The Sensational Space Shifters.
In December, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was quoted as saying there were “all manner of surprises coming out” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the band. As to what that would entail remained a mystery. As recently as Friday, Plant was still ambiguously dodging interview questions and dispelling notions of a reunion in 2018. “There’s a lot of stuff rolling around.”
So for now (and forever forward, let’s be honest), one will only find the opportunity to behold rock-and-roll’s consummate frontman figure in a band not named by Keith Moon.
A mild winter evening at the nexus of the metropolis presented such an opportunity for a fortuitous few.
Dim blue and green spotlights illuminated the tall drapery acting as a backdrop as the grizzled troubadour sauntered out from the stage’s fringes. His accomplished six-piece Space Shifter backing band filled in around him. Following a worrying yet well-received New World, during which Plant’s wails fell flat as he struggled to reach for those signature highs, any concerns about his vocal fidelity were put to bed without dinner. “C’mon Toronto,” he urged, “Turn It Up.”
The invigorating interplay between acoustic guitar and fiddle was augmented by earthy, bass-heavy synths, filling the hall with life during The May Queen as Plant began to loosen his joints and meander about, tambourine in hand.
“I hope you’re having a great time,” Plant posited before declaring that he and his Space Shifters “have a great time all the fucking time.” And judging by his cavalier charisma or his infectious avidity if you will, this was not false sentiment. With that, a familiar acoustic guitar riff portended a rising wall of phones set hastily to video mode. This was Zeppelin’s That’s The Way replete with Plant’s patented falsetto careens and the lasciviously suggestive “uh uh uh” moaning that no doubt enraged legions of regressive Nixonite parents back in the early 70s.
Whether confessing to taking ambien with collaborator Alison Krauss or sharing his affinity for the works of Ledbelly and blues guitarist Bukka White (and by proxy all of the black music from the segregated American south during the 1950s and 60s), each song came with its own endearing anecdote.
The effervescent elder-statesman was a force during the dynamic Please Read The Letter highlighted by the slow waning of the backing band’s collective output, leaving only Plant, at a near whisper, quivering and crackling until his voice was but a vestige, as a silently reverent audience hung on, breath bated. Then suddenly, a hoe-down was upon us. Led by fiddle-player Seth Lakeman, the group stormed through an exuberant Gallows Pole; Plant’s jubilant screeches bursting through the mix.
Following guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson’s enchanting and reverb-saturated guitar solo during a cover of Joan Baez’s Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, Plant took a moment to introduce his cohorts. “I used to play this song at Bluegrass festivals for a laugh,” Plant then declared to a silent audience. “That was supposed to be funny. This one’s called Little Maggie.” The song that followed served to unravel the joke that was meant to be, as the song’s outro featured the infusion of keyboardist John Baggott’s (Massive Attack, Portishead) wahing deep-house synth beats.
Then came a perplexing yet satisfying down-tuned bluegrass rendering of Misty Mountain Hop to cap off the main set.
The encore that followed featured a seamless medley centred on Zeppelin hits Bring It On Home and Whole Lotta Love, the latter delivering piercing crunch-riffs and Plant’s geriatric gesticulations. Let those two words never be used together in a sentence again.
This was not the performance this writer expected. By which I mean to say it exceeded all expectations. Robert Plant is still tapping into the verve of his younger self. It’s clear he still derives significant delight out of performing. And his last legs seem invariably planted somewhere far over the horizon.
- New World
- Turn It Up
- The May Queen
- That’s The Way
- All The King’s Horses
- Please Read The Letter
- Gallows Pole
- Carry Fire
- Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You (Joan Baez cover)
- Little Maggie (Traditional cover)
- Fixin’ To Die (Bukka White cover)
- Misty Mountain Hop
- In The Mood
- Bring It On Home/Whole Lotta Love medley