According to the local newspaper, back in 1967 a group of musicians from the Black Country travelled to Scunthorpe to play a local pub. They were called The Band of Joy, and as far as their lead singer can recall, “no-one turned up”. Travel forward fifty five years and a lot has changed. For one, the hair, though still defiantly long to keep the ‘Freak Flag Flying’ is now predominantly grey, while the lines on the face depict a life lived to the full, and the gait though still reasonably agile is understandably a whole lot less ambitious. Oh, and another thing that’s different. People turned up, in fact a lot of people turned up.
Tonight’s performance sees The Baths Hall full to capacity as Saving Grace take to the stage with front man Robert Plant joined on stage by Suzi Dian who shares vocal duties as well as playing accordion, Oli Jefferson on percussion, and the combined force of Matt Worley and Tony Kelsey on an array of stringed instruments and foot peddles. Together they create a sound that draws its inspiration and influences from around the globe, back and forward through time, uncovering some long forgotten classic, or a more recent undiscovered gem.
From the start it is very clear that Saving Grace are most definitely a band and not simply a group of musicians supporting a front man as Dian takes the lead through the first number, her voice a delicate blend of strength and fragility, while Plant looks on from stage left. It is however, when their voices combine that the magic is really created, and for the most of the show that’s how they operate, with Dian’s vocals weaving around Plant’s, who it must be said, sounds in great form, still demonstrating a fine range and control that many singers half his age would be envious of. If that wasn’t enough, Worley proves that he is not just as master of all things with strings delivering a wonderful vocal performance on ‘Soul Of A Man’
The set list treats the audience to a real history lesson in popular music, ranging from a wonderful rendition of ‘Gospel Plow’, which Bob Dylan had used to open side two of his eponymous album, and the early blues of ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, which Plant had covered on his 2010 album, ‘Band Of Joy’, with a few bars of ‘In My Time Of Dying’ – including some wonderful slide guitar from Kelsey – thrown in for good measure. Plant would in fact revisit his 2010 album for three more tracks through the evening, Los Lobos’ ‘Angel Dance’, Richard Thompson’s ‘House Of Cards’ and Low’s ‘Monkey’, each introduced with passionate praise and hearty recommendations for the original artists, before Saving Grace put their own magical musical stamp on proceedings.
Plant’s passion for the late sixties music from America is also represented here with a powerful cover of Moby Grape’s ‘It’s A Beautiful Day, Today’, running into a verse of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What Its Worth’ and he keeps the sixties theme going with fantastic version of Donovan’s ‘Season Of The Witch’. Here again Dian takes the lead, effortlessly lifting the track to a whole new level with the band delivering a daring intensity that keeps the audience transfixed to the final note. Her vocals are also heard to great effect on the traditional folk tune ‘The Cuckoo’ but her greatest contribution to this fantastic quintet is when she is in tandem with Plant. Whereas on his two duet albums with Alison Krauss there is a tendency for one or the other to take lead vocals while the other operated lower in the mix, here there is far more evidence of two voices working as one. It may be that Plant has learnt much from working with Krauss, but it might just as well be Dian’s incredible musicality that enables this to work to the level it does. This collaboration is wonderfully demonstrated on Low’s ‘Everybody’s Song’, as well as, on ‘Please Read The letter’, a song that Plant wrote with Jimmy Page for their 1998 album, ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’.
As the set drew towards a close, Plant asked for the lights to be turned on the audience, “So as to check their age and decide whether it’s past their bedtime.” Suitably surprised that they’re younger than he expected, the band played on, returning to Plant’s own back catalogue with ‘Down To The Sea’, from his 1993 album ‘Fate Of Nations’ and, though now thirty years on, the vocal performance more than holds up to the original. Here again, as they have done throughout the show, the musicians on stage deliver an intoxicating blend of sound, light and shade, tension and release, as Kelsey and Worley effortlessly move between banjo, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars. All this majestically under pinned by Jefferson’s dexterity on percussion while Dian’s accomplished accordion playing throws a kaleidoscope of colour around the hall. Throughout his career Plant has worked with some of the worlds finest musicians and with Saving Grace that level has clearly been maintained.
Tonight’s proceedings are brought to a close with the five musicians congregating around one microphone at the front of the stage for an acappella rendition of ‘Bid You Goodnight’, which doesn’t go quite as planned, much to the amusement of all involved who can hardly control their laughter, quickly shared by the audience. The over riding sense of enjoyment emanating around the hall tonight has been at the heart of the performance, with a strong sense of musical respect and camaraderie. In fact, if having too much fun on stage was a crime, then Plant may well have been in danger of having his collar felt. He promises that when they return they will be better rehearsed, I hope not too much. He also teased the audience with the suggestion that a Saving Grace album is imminent, something to really get excited about.
Now in his seventh decade as a recording and performing artist, Plant’s enthusiasm, passion, and unquestionable talent show no signs of fading, with an itinerary for 2022 that would put most artist to shame. Here, with Saving Grace, he has found another conduit to explore and share this incredible musical journey. What direction that will take, well, it makes me wonder. Sure does.