Bluesfest 2018: Robert Plant And The Sensational Space Shifters / Van Morrison / Colin Macleod Hot
Written by Central Electronic Brain     November 11, 2018    
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Bluesfest 2018: Robert Plant And The Sensational Space Shifters / Van Morrison / Colin Macleod - O2 Arena, London (UK) - 26 October 2018

This was an early-doors gig and the audience had to fight through rush hour traffic to get there; with Colin Macleod due to arrive on stage at 6.30, it meant less than a quarter of the arena was full. This was a shame because this young crofter from the Isle Of Lewis had an interesting spin on musical story-telling. His style was more Folk/singer-songwriter than Blues and it felt as if it was created during short winter days.

The set opened with the strummy 'Kicks In', a tale of teenage rebellion in the Hebrides, which appeared to not give you many options other than play music in outbuildings. Its lack of angst led one to think that teenage years were not very dark, in fact the whole song evoked more of a sense of longing. 'Shake The Walls' was another tale of an older rebellion which may have referred to the Clearances. This was my favourite and had hints of traditional song-telling, such as U2 had in the early days but lost along the way. This traditional style continued with the ballad 'Old Fire'. The set was short, only six songs, and was interrupted by a steady stream of arrivals as they tried to find their seats. It was sad that the band did not get the attention they deserved and I'd certainly like to hear a longer set with a more settled audience.

By the time Van "The Man" Morrison took to the stage, the auditorium was pretty well half full. Fronting his band dressed in trademark hat, dark glasses and a dapper suit with a sparkle pinstripe in a nod to "show", he looked the picture of laid-back cool. The set started with 'Wait A Minute Baby', a swinging cover of an Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson song that made for an upbeat start to the set. He then followed it with a bluesy version of 'Benediction'. A delicious, schmoozy Jazz version of Tony Bennetts's hit 'Who Can I Turn To' brought home a song by Londoner Anthony Newley and it featured a glorious trumpet solo that was played on the dirtiest, most battered trumpet I've ever seen.

I'm going to say something controversial and it will most likely be considered sacrilege by hardened Van Morrison fans, but this gig was like being at a superlative dance. The upbeat, Jazz Swing version of 'Have I Told You Lately' was just asking for ballroom dancers to appear, doing a quick foxtrot around the arena. This is by no means an insult; this is a tribute to the arrangements and the skills of his orchestra. I don't think Van Morrison would be offended either, he started his musical journey in showbands and it was wondrous to watch consummate musicians at work. If Carlsberg did wedding bands, this would have been the one. The show grooved on to the shimmying, Blues Funk of 'I Can Tell', the R&B swing of 'Jumping With Symphony Sid' and then the pure Jazz Swing of 'Broken Record'.

Jazz and Swing aside, there was plenty for the Blues aficionados, including the soulful cover of Ray Charles' 'I Believe' and the smooch bluesy 'Sometimes We Cry'. 'St James Infirmity' was a dark, Louisiana Blues style song, a track as moody and mournful as a funeral march yet beautiful in its intensity, but it needed the Rock & Roll Blues of 'Think Twice Before You Go' to lift the mood. 'Moondance' had a real sixties Henry Mancini vibe about it, it was certainly jazzy and smooth. The set closed out to thunderous applause and I think anyone would be hard pushed to find fault with it, there was indeed something for everyone. I've never particularly been a Van Morrison fan, but nor have I ever seen him live, and following tonight's performance, I would certainly make the effort to see him again.

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Doing a little audience watching during the break, it was interesting to see the mix, obviously the largest demographic were the children of the sixties who are a little less sinuous than they were back in the day, but there was a strong showing amongst the twenties to thirties, and it was not as wholly white middleclass an audience as one would perhaps have expected. Robert Plant strode on to the stage and looked like the grizzled Lion Of Albion, a look that suited him and his status in music. As the intro became recognisable as a zesty version of 'Ramble On', there was a ripple of movement like a breeze through corn as the audience started to perk up in their seats. It was quite strange to watch, almost as though they didn't expect to hear any Led Zeppelin and simultaneously sat a little straighter. The sound was a little off, Seth Lakeman's fiddle was lost in the mix which was a shame as it would have added an interesting element. It settled in pretty fast, however, and I have to say the sound guys did an excellent job. 'Turn It Up' was a quirky distortion of a song that segued neatly into the Hurdy-Gurdy of 'The May Queen' which clearly had Zeppelin DNA. 'Rainbow' continued with lilting rhythm, a sweet song that was accompanied by a zoetrope of Psychedelic images on the video back drop which added to the otherworldly quality.

The Space Shifters arrangement of 'Black Dog' was a crazy mash-up where the band, now released from the leash, got to knock themselves out to a legendary song. It took on a resemblance to a bonkers maypole dance where Lakeman and Justin Adams went berserk during their solos. The audience got in on the act and came in at all the right places. Plant smiled on like an indulgent Dad and the applause was huge, and with that, the wonderful Liam Tyson and John Baggott gently led into a beautiful, pure version of 'The Rain Song'. The man next to me was beside himself, "He's still got it", he said to his friend and you couldn't argue with that. As the thunderous roar died down, a self-deprecating Plant chuckled and said, 'Sometimes we play other people's songs".

Versions of 'Gallows Pole' have been played for nearly five hundred years and Plant chose the manic Lead Belly arrangement which allowed the fiddle and banjo to battle it out like devils on a village green. For me, the pure gold of the entire evening was the sublime 'Carry Fire'; Adams wove atmosphere like spice aromas in a Kasbah and you were carried to another place where the rest of the band joined you and took you on an ever-building crescendo of Persian mood. With Adams having shown his chops, it was then time for Tyson to take the journey further with an Alhambra style twist on 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You', the stunning acoustic Spanish style guitar was mesmerising.

Plant played out with Appalachian Blues 'Little Maggie' and the funked up 'Fixin' To Die'. Of course, there was no way that was going to be it and he came back for 'New World' and, to everyone's delight, 'Whole Lotta Love' which provided Lakeman another opportunity to shine. I then took the opportunity to slide out quickly into the cold October night to get a head start on the twenty thousand people about to head for the Tube.

Helen Bradley

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