Sensational Space Shifters - Womad 2012 - Review

Tagged with: Sensational Space Shifters Robert Plant Justin Adams Juldeh Camara Billy Fuller Dave Smith Womad Charlton Park Juju Review Glyn Phillips World Music Zeppelin

At the end of last year, when I first heard the rumours of this new collaborative band called the Sensational Space Shifters, I was, like almost everybody, highly intrigued.  

The story had it that Robert Plant, legendary vocalist for one of the most influential and revered rock bands of all time, was putting a new band together "a heady brew of blues, gospel and psychedelia inspired by the roots music of Mississippi, Appalachia, Gambia, Bristol and the foothills of Wolverhampton and drawing on a lifetime of meander and journeying."    Well, sign me up on the dotted line, I'm totally into that!  

The news caused ripples of anticipation and excitement amongst world musos and Zeppelin fans alike.  Wow, a lot of resource material, inspiration and sonic possibilities to be explored there.

I was even more excited when I realised that two of the key members of the new band were to be guitarist Justin Adams and Gambian riti player Juldeh Camara of the highly-feted band JuJu.  

I'd seen, photographed and reviewed Justin and Juldeh on a number of occasions both in JuJu and other outfits (eg Juldeh and Griselda Sanderson's band Julaba Kunda).  

Great, I thought, musicians with songwriting skills and a great foil of equal skill to a presence as big as Planty's.  Even better, when I realised the backbone of the band was to be JuJu's rhythm section of Billy Fuller on bass and Dave Smith on drums and percussion.  With the natural empathy built up by those four after a couple of years or more working as JuJu then you know ideas can be transmitted quickly and accurately, ears are all bedded in and musical sensitivites are highly tuned.  Justin is also a long-time collaborator with Robert Plant.  So far so good.  

After some months it was announced that the American guitarist/singer Patty Griffin was joining the line-up too. The official debut was to be at the mighty Womad Festival at Charlton Park, UK, as the headline act to finish off their 30th anniversary celebrations in July 2012.  And so all we could do was wait...

Well, I waited, but not without some private concerns.  Would Planty's presence overshadow the skills and personalities of the other integrants?  This was after all, to my understanding at least, a collaborative venture of equals.  Would the media once again just concentrate on the big name singer and relegate the rest of the band to the role of session musicians?  On the other hand would this be just JuJu with Robert Plant on top? Hmmmm... I kept my fingers crossed.

And so we get to Sunday 29th July 2012.  

I'd better explain that from this point on, the review I thought I was going to write, never got written (for reasons that will become apparent as you read on).  I very nearly came away with nothing at all for my troubles.  

So, my apologies for anyone used to my usual style of writing and attention to musical detail.  Sometimes you can only record what you actually heard and saw and in the manner you experienced it.  So here goes . . .

I'm at Womad, I'm backstage, media passes around my wrist and neck, camera over my shoulder, waiting with 18 photographers to be allowed into the Pit (the clear area just in front of the stage about 2 metres deep) where, as standard concert rules apply, we are allowed to photograph the band from close-up with no other people in front of us for the duration of three songs or 15 minutes, whichever is the least, before we are led away again: no flash photography, no barging or obstruction.  We all understand the rules - we've done it loads of times before and have even been helping each other out all festival long.  There's a good working camaraderie.

Out round the front there is a huge crowd amassed, many thousands strong, a sea of faces all patiently waiting for the grand finale of Womad 2012.  This is the big one, the review that's going to get read, it's got to be good.  Normally, I'd be focussed purely on writing, but I'll never get near to the band to get any shots to illustrate it without being in the pit, so I'm back here nervous for once, waiting.  

The Womad PR team (Borkowski PR) have been looking after the media all weekend (TV, Radio, Photographers, Journalists, etc) and doing a great job of juggling all our different requirements and getting us all in the right places at the right time.  An event of the size of Womad - particularly with the 30th Anniversary - takes a lot of planning. And let's not forget that PR teams are between a rock and a hard place in trying to please everybody... trust me, it's not easy trying to appease the needs of artists, organisers, public, security and 'the Meejah'.  It's a thankless task.

So, this is pretty much the last job of the weekend.  We're all on the home straight. Nothing can go wrong now.  Can it?

And then we're told: "Guys, there might be a problem...".  It seems that Robert Plant doesn't want any photographs taken at all!  We all look at each other. Uh? What'd'ya mean 'no photographs?'.  Don't be ridiculous!  What's all that about?  The PR team go to try and rescue the situation.  We wait patiently, but really unsettled.  How are we supposed to do our job as media without the basic requirements?  We're music journalists, not paparazzi!

Ok, they're back.  He says you can take some, but only from the side, he doesn't want you to move around, he doesn't even want to see you...  Uh? How's that going to work?  Really?  

They go off again to try and re-negotiate for us.  We wait, less patiently now, time's ticking on, the band are due to go on soon.  OK, you've got the standard three songs to shoot in, but they've got to be numbers 5, 6 and 7 in the set.  Why?  Because that's when the whole band's on stage.  Ok.  I can understand that, fair enough.  So that means the first four numbers are not the Space Shifters then.  Ok.  

Oh, and the Pit's been roped off right in front of the band, you're to be split into two groups, one group of 9 on the left, one group of 9 on the right - choose your sides now.  How do we know where the different musicians are standing on the stage to get the best sightlines?  You don't.  Even we don't know.  There's no time now to ask anyone to locate a stage plan.  It's pure pot-luck.  

There is much confusion and discontent amongst the press at these ridiculous conditions - none of the other artists have laid down any demands like this.  I'm getting really nervous now and I've only got one shot at this (both for photos and review).  

We're led through to the high-security area just behind the main stage and corralled in a holding area to stand around waiting until we can be led round to the front to try and get some shots.  We wait.  We're split into two groups.  The others make their way around to the right hand side of the stage.  We wait.  

Everyone seems to be on edge, photographers, staff, security. I've never known such tension at Womad.  They're late starting.  It's now 9.52pm, they should have started at 9.40pm.  Come on, come on, I've been on my feet all day and for three and half days now, walking miles and miles around this huge site. I'm cold, really cold.  My concentration's going and I'm still expected to produce the review of a lifetime.

The Sensational Space Shifters (or at least some of them including Plant) hit the stage and there's a huge roar of approval. I try to edge round in the darkness to catch some of the sound of the performance, even if all I can actually see is a load of scaffolding and the outside of the stage.  But no, all I can hear is a thumping 2/4 beat and a bass rumble.  Not even music, just that.  

Planty's singing.  Somebody's singing anyway.  Song ends, huge roar. Second song.  Again I can only hear a slow, brooding, insistent ostinato on the bass.  It's so difficult to hear properly in this area outside of and behind the stage. It's all echo and reverb and weird pulsations.  A distinct lack of clarity.  God, I hope it sounds better out front.  The music feels very much rock orientated.  It goes into double-time.  The next one has the feel of a boogie-woogie.  

The time ticks on and on and all I can think is that I should be out there reviewing the show.  Fourth song - no idea what it is.  And then suddenly: right you lot, follow me and we're led to the side near to the front corner below the high stage where we squeeze past edgy, belligerent looking Security (who to be honest had been really nice all weekend long - super-efficient, but very friendly with it) and we're in the Pit.  

But what's this? A huge area right were we need to be, but it's empty and roped off.  I'm second in, go right to the front of the tape and try to get anything I can, but it's so difficult, we're crammed in like paparazzi and treading on each other's toes and bags and accidentally jostling each other and the slightest movement puts you in someone else's sightline.  There's a security guy waving for me to take my right foot back - it's about 3 inches over the taped area.  I can hardly keep my balance.  

The other photographers aren't having a better time of it either.  Come on Planty, get closer to Justin and Juldeh, bloody hell, who put that mike stand there, Juldeh, why did you choose to wear a hat with a brim on this night of all nights, and why isn't he lit up properly?  This way, this way, nooooo, don't keep facing over there.  We're on the wrong bloody side here.  And there's a point: where on earth is this Patty Griffin and why has no-one said anything about her? Come on, concentrate.  I'm completely oblivous to the music - it's all about getting the money shot.  One song, two songs, three songs and then... we're being ushered out in no uncertain terms.  Whoof!  

I’m angry, frustrated, cheapened. Herded like an animal.  I still need to hear this bloody music properly.

We’re at the back of the huge stage and heading for the gap in the fence that leads onto the perimeter access road. Need to get to the Press and Media tent and get hold of the set list before it disappears. Hurry, hurry, hurry. My legs are killing me, my eyes are red, my knees just want to buckle up after days of walking, stumbling along the dusty dirt road. Find the Press tent, find the PR lady.  Oh, bloody hell she’s talking to someone, come on, come on, notice me, please, I’m in a hurry.

OK, great, I need to get a copy of the set list I saw you with earlier. Pardon? Ok, it must be here somewhere.  Come on Set List. where are you? Is that it?  No.  Is that it? Can I have a copy? Only one we’ve got, you’ll have to copy it out.   Noooo… copy, copy, copy, tick-tock, tick-tock, scribble, scribble, scribble...

Right. Need to get back into the main arena and then make my way towards the Open Air Stage. Through the back stage open air areas, through the fence, skirt the whole of the Siam Tent and then… bloody hell, there’s that many people watching them!  Shit.

I walk and walk till I’m as near as I can get and I’m still a long way behind even the control tower and all I can see is some little stick people on a far away stage. Ok, stop. You need to listen and write. How many songs are there left? What the hell’s this song? Are they following the agreed set list?

Hold on he’s talking. What’s he saying? He’s trying to “get near to the wolf”? Uh? What’s he going on about? Something about John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. What? Erm, er, shit, this must be “Witchdoctor”. Oh no, that means it’s the penultimate number already! Aaaargh!

Scribble, scribble, scribble. He’s talking again. Something about his good mate Peter Gabriel being a great guy but he cheats at tennis. Hold on a mo, that’s a point. How come Gabriel isn’t here anyway?  After all the hype for the 30th you’d have thought he’d shown his face at least.

Hold on, Plant’s going on about him again - something about him being in bed and listening on the radio? Dunno, didn’t get it. Summat else now: “Nice to hear the crowd”. Ok. I can relate to that.

Last song - according to the set list it appears to be a medley of Who Do You Love, Whole Lotta Love, Steal Away and Bury My Body. Fair enough. Ok, got the first one, Whole Lotta Love sung over a very different rhythm - relatively interesting - goes into a fiddle riff, fair enough, then goes into something else, now it’s… now it’s... now it's...Nah, it’s gone.

You know what?  I’ve lost interest now. I’ve tried, I really have, but this just isn’t holding my attention at all. I’ve tried to keep engaged with it all, but I can’t do it any longer.  I'm just not feeling this band.

The individual musicians are good: I’ve seen both Justin and Juldeh on a number of different occasions and they are both engaging, sincere and brilliant (far better than this); I’ve seen JuJu a few times before (also including tonight’s bassist Billy Fuller and drummer Dave Smith) and they’re really talented, thoughtful musicians; the other two musicians seem ok too (no idea who they are at the mo), even Planty’s still got that unique voice, but something’s missing. There’s a huge hole at the centre of this band. It just doesn’t hang together… They’re not working as one.

If there was a vision there in the first place, I’m not seeing it here at all. All of it, all that talent and experience that they’ve accumulated between them, just seems lost in this band. It’s all less than the sum of its parts. I’m just, I dunno, I'm just underwhelmed. There’s no Sensation. There’s no Shifting of Space. There’s just an empty space.

Is it just me? Am I just cold and tired and hungry and exhausted and frustrated? Some people are obviously enjoying it. There’s a woman in a red topper and a spangly black dress with ankle bells round her Doc Martens who’s doing a druggy, spacey dance a couple of yards to my left. There are people cheering when the songs end. But there’s also a lot of people just looking bored. Looking like they’re waiting for something to happen. They look like I feel.

Hold on, the music seems to have got quieter and quieter and just faded out. Planty’s saying something: oh, he’s introducing the band, thanking us for coming out. They’ve left the stage and the announcer’s coming on and she’s saying “…that’s it for this stage…”. Uh? What? Just like that, no encore?

Everyone around me is looking puzzled too. I can hear boos coming from nearer the stage and they're travelling back through the enormous crowd. There’s some music coming from the speakers no... it’s, it’s, it’s... Oh? It’s “Honeysuckle Rose” - a rather nice old jazz standard. Oh well, that’s a nice one to go to bed on.

Hold on, what’s happening now? A cheer? Oh, Bob’s back on, and the band too, they’re going to do an encore now after all then? OK.  Fade out “Honeysuckle Rose” (Oy! I was enjoying that) and Planty’s making an announcement “We’ve got to do this really quickly, so this has got to be the Hawkwind version then… or maybe it’s the OMD one…”. Nah, lost on me.

And we’re now launching into “Gallows Pole”. Right. So, more Zeppelin then. The guitarist is on a banjo I think and doing a duet with Juldeh on riti; Dave Smith’s playing cajón. Hey, it’s not bad this. Probably the most enjoyable number of the night. It’s speeding up. And now it’s ended. Oh. Ok.

“Thanks a lot, we’ll see you in the Winter when we’re gonna go round and round”.

Off they go again and so do I to the strains of Honeysuckle Rose, in search of a Chai Latte before I hit my sleeping bag and blissful sleep.

I say to sleep, but the reality is I can’t get that thought out of my head: there’s something unbalanced and missing from the Sensational Space Shifters and if they don’t get it sorted before their Winter tour then it’s not going to do any of the participants any favours. At the minute it’s still very much 'the Robert Plant show' (whether he wants it or not) and I was led to believe this was going to be something very different indeed.

I sincerely hope it gets sorted.  All the ingredients are there.  But the vision needs to have life breathed into it.  It needs to be more about the band, more about the music and less about the legend.  Maybe it just needs time to mature, but I'll be perfectly honest here, I didn't hear anything to really excite me.  I really expected a lot more.  I'm very disappointed.  Underwhelmed.  

Now, you compare that to the sensation of sensory overload thousands of us experienced after hearing the Manganiyar Seduction, the excitement of Balkan Beat Box, DJ Yoda or Grupo Fantasma, the sheer class of Omara Portuondo and the Buena Vista Social Club, Khaled, Hugh Masekela, Jimmy Cliff, Keb' Mo', the fresh zingy quality of Joe Driscoll and Seckou Kouyate, Balkan Alien Sound, the Alaev Family and The Lions of Africa and the engaging intimacy and charm of Kareyce Fotso or Deolinda to name but a few of the many amazing acts that Womad has quite rightly built it's reputation on.

The jury’s adjourned until their Winter tour, and I'd genuinely like to have the opportunity to see the Sensational Space Shifters again and to truly review them (even photograph them!), but it ain’t looking good so far. I’ll be ironing my little black cap in the meantime... It might take more than silver and gold to keep them from the Gallows Pole.

Glyn Phillips (

6th August 2012

The Sensational Space Shifters were: 

Robert Plant was on vocals and frame drum; Justin Adams on guitar, ngoni and frame drum; Juldeh Camara on riti (Gambian one-string fiddle) and kologo (two-string Gambian banjo); Billy Fuller on bass, Dave Smith on drumkit and cajón; Johnny Baggott on Keyboards; Liam "Skin" Tyson on guitar.

The set-list should have been (to the best of my knowledge):

1  Fixin’ To Die

2  Tin Pan Alley

3  44

4  Friends

5  Spoonful

6  Enchanter

7  Bron-yr-Aur

8  Another Tribe

9  Black Dog

10 Down To The Sea

11 Witchdoctor

12 Who Do You Love / Whole Lotta Love / Steal Away /Bury My Body

Encore: Gallows Pole