Blues Fest has been building reputation as a musical calendar fixture for a few years. A four-night festival of musicians who either play in blues style or who have adapted blues songs in a fusion of styles. Tonight’s pairing of co-headliners have, across their careers, managed both.
An understated backdrop greets the audience for the arrival of Van ‘The Man’ Morrison, but he is heralded on to the stage by a lengthy introduction emphasising his legendary status and his knighthood. Van Morrison cuts an unassuming figure, taking to the stage in a silver threaded pinstripe suit, trilby with multi-coloured trim and sunglasses that cover all but his nose and mouth.
Morrison performs like a machine, with no time in between songs for banter, he doesn’t even seem to need a moment to catch his breath. Initially, he divides his performance between vocals and saxophone, he runs through a number of blues standards restyled with a jazz sound. Joined by an exceptional six-piece band (many of whom are multi-instrumentalists) the backing is note perfect and Morrison’s voice soars above it. The quality of his vocals is breathtaking, at 73 years of age, his voice has not lost quality. His performance seems effortless, he has opted for complex phrasing on his songs and they flow instinctively from him. The styles range from swing, smooth jazz to New Orleans jazz with a base of the best of the blues. His version of St James Infirmary lays down a heavy challenge as the best live version of the Century.
Slotted into his set of what are essentially covers are some well-loved original songs like Baby Boomer’s anniversary favourite Have I Told You Lately, and a slightly less enthusiastic version of Moondance. Some notable songs are missing from his set, very likely fielded out to offer a set curated specifically for Blues Fest. Upbeat tracks like Brown Eyed Girl, Into the Mystic (in fact any other songs from the Moondance album) or anything with a folkier edge is scrapped in favour of songs like Sometimes We Cry and Broken Record which shone out in his recent album of reworked covers, Versatile. A punchy version of Baby Please Don’t Go is slotted into his repertoire but is too quickly absorbed into a medley of Rock Island Line, Cry Cry Baby and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working.
The sheer intensity of long and perfectly tonal notes and his skill level on a range of instruments is a convincing case for musicians who never stop pushing themselves to a state of mastery. For the longest time, there have been well-earned rumours that Van Morrison is a cantankerous and unfriendly man with a great deal of social anxiety, watching him perform tonight, I feel an unexpected wave of compassion for his gruff demeanour. Musicality flows from out of him. Music has not been a wasted gift for him, he has harnessed it and stretched his own capabilities, I think now this is something he has done for himself and not for the approval of others. The fact that he permits this massive audience to listen is a gift. As he continues to take to the stage he will have a willing and grateful audience.
After a lengthy set Morrison is bustled off the stage having overrun his allotted time. A quick turnaround by a slick and fast-moving crew resets not just the setting but intensifies the atmosphere, without changing the screens or luxe velvet curtains that line the stage, a palpable change occurs. Like Alice in the rabbit hole, once you blink everything around seems bigger. Robert Plant has fronted many bands of high calibre musicians; Band Of Joy, The Honeydrippers, and most famously Led Zeppelin.
Tonight, he leads another band who could qualify for supergroup status, grown from the band Strange Sensation come, The Sensational Space Shifters. Consisting of bandmates who have their own proud careers: Seth Lakeman who has been carving out a career as an exceptional folk musician. Former Cast guitarist Liam Tyson. John Baggot of Massive Attack and Portishead fame. Dave Smith of Gambian Afro-blues band Juju. Beak bassist Billy Fuller. Finally, a man who brings added value to the show in the form of wonderous technical ability and butt loads of showmanship, Justin Adams.
Adams has brought blues and the Malian and Senegalese sound to The Impossible Dreamers and Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart. He earned status and acclaim working with modern blues greats Tinariwen (who also brilliantly collaborated with Page and Plant on their legendary No Quarter: Unledded album). If you like the blues and you are not listening to Tinariwen, then your ears are broken.
The power wielded by this band can be felt by the crowd from the second they arrive on stage and tear straight into Led Zeppelin classic Ramble On. Plant commands the stage bracing his mic stand in both hands, pumping it on the beat. His voice is still able to hold notes that come from the base of his lungs and finish in a screaming outcry. Through his exploration in world music, folk, country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll Plant has learned how to manipulate his voice as an instrument, the effect is incredible and cannot be emulated.
Plant is comfortable on stage and addresses the audience with ease, he came to play a party and wants the crowd to enjoy themselves. He explains they will play some new songs and some old songs, “We will put them through the grinder and who knows what will come out.” In my experience this is usually a warning that a lot of hard-hitting songs are about to be toned down into mellow jazz or stripped back to thin accompaniment, in the case of The Sensational Space Shifters the opposite is true, some treasured songs are about to get a fire lit under them and be shot into the fourth dimension.
High energy versions of Robert Plants back catalogue, both with Led Zeppelin and solo plus a couple of standout covers (previously recorded by Plant) and in keeping with Blues Fest in the form of Joan Baez’s Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and Bukka White’s Fixin’ To Die. Great moments were drawn out of album tracks like, Turn it Up from the brilliant album Lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar, and The May Queen, and the eponymous track from Carry Fire.
Plant’s recorded repertoire has frequently included reimagined traditional songs and new magic is breathed into some of these tonight, a rendition of Gallows Pole is ended with a jaw-dropping solo from Justin Adams who holds one note reverberating from his guitar, cutting into it with a well-timed slap on the body of the instrument. Maintaining the same note, he stands the guitar on its ‘head’ while the crowd cheer and whoop.
These interactions with the crowd are not gimmicks, rather musicians having fun and proving that accomplished playing doesn’t have to be matched with po-faced self-importance. Plant shares the stage generously with his fellow musicians which allow for these unforgettable moments and to the unity of the band. There are instances when Plant steps away from the centre stage and plays the tambourine while Lakeman, Fuller, Tyson and Adams fling themselves around the stage weaving in and out of each other in a state of glorious celebration.
Playing the most recently penned song A New World, there is a hope the possibility of a studio album and maybe a further tour? Whilst only a hint of new material is tagged on as a teaser, it seems to take little more for the audience to commit to this iteration of Robert Plant’s band. Like the giddy moment of an adrenaline-fuelled white-knuckle ride, we are all left with the feeling that we wanna go again!
Blues Fest continues at O2 Arena London and A3 Arena Dublin.
Photography by Imelda Michalczyk. Live Review of Van Morrison and Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at the O2 Arena, London 26th October 2018 by Sarah Sievers