Rock meets West African strings in Robert Plant set

British rock star Robert Plant and his latest band, the Sensational Space Shifters, moved from heavy rock to spacey audio exploration Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The show featured a generous number of the classic rock songs that Plant recorded when he was Led Zeppelin’s frontman, plus songs by Chicago blues star Howlin’ Wolf and the Mississippi Delta’s Bukka White and, presumably, music from a forthcoming album by Plant and the Space Shifters.

Plant reached all the way back to “Led Zeppelin I” for his first song at the Samsung Galaxy Stage. The thunder and butterfly contrast in “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” was a sign of things to come. Guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson plucked acoustic guitar arpeggios in the song’s soft bits between abrupt bursts of guitar and percussion.

From the opening song on, the 65-year-old Plant was in strong, distinctive voice, occasionally wielding his mic stand like the rock star he is.

“Hey! Hey!” he said after the band’s opening number. “Let’s go!”

Plant and the Space Shifters proceeded to transform Howlin’ Wolf’s already atmospheric “Spoonful” into heavy, moody blues. A West African influence entered the song when Juldah Camara, a Space Shifter from Gambia, soloed with his one-string African violin.

Camara moved to an instrument that’s obviously an ancestor of the American banjo for a reinvention of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” that morphed into a trance-rock jam.

Another blues classic, “Seventh Son,” segued into a long tease by Plant and the band for a full-blown version of Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

The Space Shifters are a band that combines West Africa and the Middle East with the American South and the Delta blues that inspired Plant and his peers when they were kids back in England.

Plant and his Led Zeppelin cohorts, as well as a generation of their English musician peers — including Eric Clapton, who performs at Jazz Fest on Sunday — transformed American music from the South into their own louder, faster, wilder expression. And Plant hasn’t stopped. He informed his audience that his Jazz Fest show is a one-off gig, for which he traveled 5,674 miles. And he won’t have much time to enjoy New Orleans, a city he loves, because he’s leaving Sunday.

He also changed the lyrics to a Zeppelin classic, “Going to California,” singing, “I’m going to Louisiana with an ache in my heart.”

Plant couldn’t resist recalling riverboat parties he experienced back in the day, featuring music by such local music stars as Earl King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Snooks Eaglin.

Odds are he’ll be back again to rock some more.