Timbre Rock & Roots Day 1 @ Fort Canning Park, 21 March 2013
It was my first time attending Timbre Rock & Roots and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought the inclusion of Rufus Wainwright was an odd choice for a festival centered around blues and roots music. If there was ever a performer who ought to be playing at the Esplanade Concert Hall, Rufus was it. Minor quibble aside I was still looking forward to seeing him. The main draw of the first day was no doubt Robert Plant, frontman of the legendary British rock band Led Zeppelin. I must confess I’d never heard a Led Zeppelin album in its entirety until the night before when I streamed Led Zeppelin IV on YouTube as some form of last minute mugging. Yes, my hard rock knowledge is woefully inadequate.
Rufus Wainwright’s set turned out to be more enjoyable than I thought. The mood was relaxed and casual with him performing acoustic on guitar and piano. His tenor voice was in fine form, lyrical and drawling on his more melancholic piano songs while strong and robust on the louder strummy guitar ones. Songs such as “Memphis Skyline”, a song he wrote about his friend and fellow musician Jeff Buckley who drowned in 1997 at the age of 27 and “Zebulon”, written about his mother who passed away from cancer three years ago, were beautiful and elegiac. As he tinkled the opening strains of “Hallelujah”, originally by Leonard Cohen but made famous by Buckley, I was struck by how much he and the late troubadour were kindred spirits in their vulnerable songwriting and similar backgrounds. The politically charged “Going to a Town” with its anti-America lyrics was probably his angriest song while the jaunty “Out of the Game” was one of the evening’s poppier moments. Rufus exuded warmth and an easy-going air as he cracked jokes and chatted with the audience in between songs. He was evidently in high spirits, talking about how excited he was to be in Asia and showing off a Hello Kitty guitar he got in Japan. All too soon, Rufus ended with the rolling piano-driven “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” off his 2001 album Poses. Here’s hoping he returns for a full show in the future.
As the stage was being set up for the next act, the atmosphere got more rowdy with enthusiastic chants of “Robert Plant! Robert Plant!” that grew ever louder and more deafening. The smell of incense wafting through the humid air added to the mystical vibe. Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for as Robert Plant and his band the Sensational Space Shifters came on stage to raucous cheers. Looking like a shaman with his long scraggly mane and clad in a simple tshirt and jeans, it was a far cry from the flamboyant suits he donned during Led Zeppelin’s heyday. A psychedelic rocking affair ensued as he led the band through slowed down and synthesized versions of Led Zeppelin classics like “Going to California”, “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Whole Lotta Love”, and the crowd lapped up every minute of it. Robert might be an old man now but he proved age is no hindrance to performing as he stormed around the stage, shook his hips and twirled the microphone stand. His crisp British accent and polite manners belied his wild grizzled demeanour. The 80 minute set wound down at 10.30pm with an encore of “Rock and Roll” and Robert and his band took a collective bow before disappearing, leaving hundreds of satisfied fans in their wake.