Review: Seth Lakeman steals the show as Robert Plant adds some rarities for his Opera House debut

Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant returned to Australia this week, for his first visit since 2013, and he marked the occasion with three shows in Sydney ahead of his visit to Byron Bay Bluesfest. For the second of these shows, Plant and his band, The Sensational Space Shifters, descended on the Sydney Opera House for his first ever shows in the venue – something which the legendary performer took several moments to recognise, while also taking some time to look back on his first ever tour of Australia – the 1972 Led Zeppelin visit; the only time the group would tour our country. Here, he played the Sydney Showgrounds and reminisced about remembering waking up to find the authorities rummaging through his suitcase.

“That’s because you had fascists in charge then”, he said. “Luckily you don’t any more”, he said with something of a wry grin, before he launched into a Zeppelin classic.

Making his Opera House debut on his birthday, opening act and Space Shifters member Seth Lakeman made a lasting impression on the sold out crowd, jumping between a couple of violins/fiddles, a mandolin, and a guitar as he played tracks like “The Hurlers” (which opened the set) and “The Bold Knight”.

In the traditional folk approach, Lakeman took time to introduce every song, telling us how “Portrait of My Wife” was his attempt at a “drinking song” (watch him perform it in the AU sessions), and saw him garner something of a minor singalong with the crowd. “Kitty Jay” closed the set, and had the crowd clapping along as he jammed on the fiddle and stomp box. He is a phenomenal performer, and proved to be a engaging opening act for the legend that was to follow, but it would prove to be his musicianship during the Robert Plant set that would truly make Lakeman a long lasting memory for everyone who’d gathered in the iconic venue.

Opening with the Zeppelin song “What Is and What Should Never Be”,  which featured in the 1972 setlist, it was clear Plant had arrived at the Opera House with the plans to deliver a much different set than what he played at the State Theatre a few nights before. That show was notable for a fairly lacklustre audience (which he referred to multiple times in the set, even saying someone was spotted sleeping in the crowd), which had been much the same setlist as his US tour, and it was the first time since a show last year that he didn’t open things up with “New World…” off the latest album.

Though the set featured most of the same tracks off his newer material, as well as some incredible covers that I’ll get to in a moment, the set also featured Zeppelin classic “Going to California”, which he’s only played a few times in the last couple of years (and notably featured in the Zeppelin 1972 tour of Australia), a medley of traditional songs “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and “In My Time of Dying” which Plant and Zeppelin had recorded, respectively, and Zeppelin’s “Thank You”, which closed the main set and hadn’t been featured in a live set for some four years.

But as much as the more well known songs struck a cord with the crowd, and the closing medley which featured “Whole Lotta Love” got everyone on their feet, what shined through every song was the musicianship of the band. The new music off of Carry Fire was particularly strong (with “The May Queen” and the title track both making appearances), and he also included a couple of tracks from his 2014 release lullaby and… THE CEASELESS ROAR, “Rainbow” and “Turn it Up”. “Please Read The Letter” was a welcome inclusion, too, which he’d released on his brilliant record with Alison Krauss. Seth Lakeman’s brilliant fiddle work was given quite a lot of attention in his Space Shifters take, and he really proved a stand out whenever he got on stage, be it for “The May Queen” or their cover of “Little Maggie”, a traditional folk song.

Interestingly, it may have been the cover tracks which proved the best moments of the show. “Little Maggie”, which went into a bit of an electronic jam from their keyboardist was phenomenal, as “The great Seth Lakeman” (Plant’s words) shone on the fiddle. A cover of Bukka White‘s “Fixin’ to Die” saw the drummer and guitarist have their moment to provide the crowd with energetic solos, and Leadbelly‘s “The Gallis Pole” (interpreted as “Gallows Pole” by Zeppelin) was treated well, with Seth again stealing the show, supported by the banjo which added to the track nicely.

But it may have been “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, a Led Zeppelin cover of a Joan Baez track you can find on Zeppelin’s debut release, which saw Plant’s vocals at their strongest (he barely missed a note all night – the man can still pack a bunch in the vocal department, as he flings his mic stand around the stage), and saw the crowd jump to their feet, as an epic guitar solo brought it to its end. The track was also a reminder that Robert Plant, and Zeppelin before him, have always been a great covers band. Indeed, their own material is brilliant, but there’s always been something about a Zeppelin/Plant/Page take on a classic/traditional folk song that has proven to warrant a tremendous response. There’s just no one who does it like they do – and there’s no one who can deliver it with the voice of Plant.

It’s fair to say that no one was sleeping at this Sydney Opera House performance, and Plant did not disappoint, delivering a two hour set of new favourites, rarities, incredible covers and Zeppelin classics, accompanied by a phenomenal band in the Sensational Space Shifters. Of that band, it was Seth Lakeman who stole the show, armed with his violin and a world of skill, that took some of those songs to another level. You could tell that Plant and the rest of the band were really enjoying it too.

SETLIST:
What Is and What Should Never Be (Led Zeppelin)
Turn It Up
The May Queen
Rainbow
Going to California (Led Zeppelin)
All the King’s Horses
Please Read the Letter (Robert Plant & Alison Krauss)
Gallows Pole (“The Gallis Pole” by Leadbelly Cover, Zeppelin interpretation)
Carry Fire
Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You (Zeppelin cover of a Joan Baez original)
Little Maggie (Traditional)
Fixin’ to Die (Bukka White)
Thank You (Led Zeppelin)
Encore:
Happy Birthday (sung to Seth Lakeman, with cake)
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Plant cover of traditional) / In My Time of Dying (Zeppelin cover of traditional)
Bring It On Home (Sonny Boy Williamson II Cover, Led Zeppelin Variation) / Whole Lotta Love (Zeppelin) / Santianna (traditional) / Whole Lotta Love (Zeppelin)

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters continue their tour with an encore performance at the Sydney Opera House tonight, before heading to Bluesfest and dates in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.

The reviewer attended the performance at the Sydney Opera House on 26th March 2018. Photos by Prudence Upton and used with permission.