Photo by Simon Bamford
I’ve travelled to many, many gigs in Manchester and visited numerous venues across the city but this is the first time for the Palace. It’s a wonderful grade II listed building dating back to 1891, a fascinating structure of architectural significance with a warm atmosphere extremely pleasing to the eye boasting two balconies,royal boxes and a warren like environment. It was originally known as the Manchester Palace of Varieties which is rather fitting for tonight as the music and performers will certainly offer a variety on stage tonight.
As the lights dim Juldeh Camara and Justin Adams enter the stage bathed in a red glow plugging in their traditional African instruments the Ritti a one stringed fiddle and the Kologo a two stringed African banjo. There has been a line up change since I last saw them with Dave Smith replacing the colourful intriguing character of Salah Dawson Miller on percussion. Justin Adams will be familiar to Robert Plant fans as he is one of the guitarists in Strange Sensation and a mighty fine musician he is too. Juldeh is a Gambian ‘griot’ meaning poet, tonight wearing traditional robes he again excels in his own musicianship too. It is a perfect fusion of blues; rhythm and African tradition taking rock ‘n’ roll music back to its desert roots. Justin is a world music and blues enthusiast, being responsible for producing the music of Mali band Tinariwen along the way on his own musical journey, and he is in buoyant mood tonight.
Their vibrant hypnotic trancelike tunes take the listener on a musical journey utilising the electric guitar against a backdrop of percussion and traditional handmade instruments from the African continent. It’s an almost unworldly sound as they bring to the fore their individual strengths with mainly guitar and the virtuoso playing of Juldeh on the Ritti and singing in his own language Fulani. Their unique sound may not be as familiar to many in the audience here, however it is a real pleasure to see these two masters of their craft perform tonight. This is joyful music too, with Justin humorously remarking that we ought to see them in a smaller venue in Wales where everyone will be guaranteed a good time, offering more than a hint for people to get up on their feet to dance. I couldn’t agree more, as I could easily imagine myself transported to the hills to witness this perfection of fusing the musical styles of the western and African continents. It’s their unique take on tradition with familiar blues and Bo Diddley riffs which is a joy to behold, especially with ‘Sahara’ and ‘Feluni Coochie man’ and judging by the queue to buy their CDs during the interval they certainly turned on and won over more fans tonight.
On Friday evening the Band of Joy performed in London for BBC radio and recorded a soon to be televised Electric Proms, if you heard that performance you would have had an insight into what to expect tonight
Initially I was a little concerned as to the direction the ‘Golden God’ was taking with this new project and I personally hoped that after the collaboration with Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett he would reconvene with the excellent Strange Sensation. However having heard their take on the Los Lobos song Angel Dance’ prior to release it was a relief when I heard that arrangement and when the album finally arrived I was knocked out by the sound of it and the choice of eclectic covers.
This of course is not the Band of Joy with which he performed in the 60’s with his best mate the late great John Henry Bonham, no this is a different engine entirely, a newly assembled outfit of some of the finest musicians from Nashville and beyond and back home to Kidderminster. On Fridays’ Radio 2 live broadcast he was quick point out that it was playing with the Band of Joy as Jo Whiley had only introduced him to the nation. This modesty is justified, as he fully acknowledges their individual input to the BoJ throughout the night, an affinity which is warm and fully appreciated by the man, who is willing to take a back seat allowing the others to shine, much like he did with Alison Krauss and T Bone a couple of years back at the Apollo down the road.
Casually dressed in jeans and open necked shirt he takes to the dimly lit stage following the BoJ collective to rapturous applause, the legendary rock hero had returned. They open with ‘Down to the sea’ from the ‘Fate of nations’ album, it’s a much heavier sound than the previous live outing with swampy wah wah guitar from the awesome Buddy Miller. This flows into the mandolin led ‘Angel dance’ featuring a fine display therein from multi instrumentalist Darrell Scott and singing accompaniment from Patty Griffin. Robert dances and throws a few familiar shapes with the mike stand, with all the band beaming and thoroughly enjoying themselves. He recollects previous visits to Manchester name checking a few places including the Twisted wheel and the Domino club, recalling the blues greats, Sonhouse, Bukka White and the Reverend Gary Davies as inspiration - a misspent youth as we all surmise, ha ha.
He always comes across as a very humble person, not one for chasing celebrity status and escaping down the cabaret route unlike some of his peers, always allowing the music to speak for itself. This is his path now, a quest to continue and pursue his roots once again reinterpreting his muse in his own way. With calls of “I love you Robert”, he laughs and quips “I thought it was all over for us”.
Naturally the audience wonder when one of those songs will appear and it’s not long before a radically reworked version of a little played ‘Misty Mountain hop’ appears. Other songs to feature from the mighty Zeppelin cannon later include Houses of the Holy, a superb country tinged acoustic and peddle led steel guitar version of Jimmy’s self penned ‘Tangerine’, a hint of ‘In my time of Dying’, a more roots version of the traditional blues folk song ‘Gallows pole’ and the audience participation which is of course the encore ‘Rock and Roll’ complete with the obligatory “ah ahs” in response.
One of my favourites from the BoJ LP is their version of Richard Thompson’s ‘House of Cards’ which tonight is sublime. This is one of several highlights this evening from the BoJ release another being Low’s ‘Monkey’ which is dark and brooding in its delivery echoing U2’s Edge guitar style as Robert and Patty almost breathlessly bounce off each other taking the song to epic atmospheric proportions. There’s a humorous plug for the new single ‘Can’t buy my love’ as he says it is after all being played on the Ken Bruce show. The music takes on an almost gospel like quality with ‘Satan your kingdom must come down’ with banjo and echoey guitar sounds. The musicianship on stage is organic and faultless as is the mandolin, banjo, guitar and pedal steel five part harmonies. The BoJ is one musical living working body allowing individuals to take time in the spotlight to shine as Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott and the “hillbilly princess” Patty Griffin are all allowed their chance as Robert moves to the side of the stage or behind, also giving him the opportunity to play some harmonica in the background.
There’s an outing of ‘Please read the letter’ the song originally on ‘Walking into Clarksdale’ which he recorded with Jimmy Page and later to be featured on ‘Raising Sand’. However this is more akin to the former with a slight nod to the Walker Bros to these ears. As the band brings the night to a close they finish with an acapella ‘Goodnight’. As they line up and embrace each other the audience give them a standing ovation before they make their exit having witnessed a master class in musicianship and performance from start to finish.
Where Robert Plant’s journey takes him next is anyone’s guess, but wherever his travels take him I’m sure it will be one of integrity and quality, just don’t expect any reunions, sorry but we just have to accept that one now; just let it go as those images are clear but sadly they are over the hills and far away in the misty mountains.
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara: Tell no lies
Robert Plant: Fate of Nations
Robert Plant and Strange Sensation: Mighty Rearranger
Robert Plant: Band of Joy
Online: www.tbl.com Tight but Loose – The Led Zeppelin magazine