Robert Plant’s decision to perform “Stairway To Heaven” solo for the first time during a charity show on October 21 shocked many Led Zeppelin fans.
“Exactly how much did Hell freeze over?” asked one forum user after seeing a clip of the performance. “Didn’t have this on any bingo card ever,” wrote another.
The charity fundraising performance in aid of The Cancer Awareness Trust saw Plant joined on stage by Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, who organised the event after he was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer in 2018.
The performance of “Stairway To Heaven” on October 21 was the first time that Plant performed the song solo and was also his first performance of the song since the Led Zeppelin reunion show on December 10, 2007.
Now, LedZepNews can exclusively reveal the backstory to Plant’s one-off performance of “Stairway To Heaven” and explain how the performance came together at short notice, thanks to an interview with Kenwyn House, the lead guitarist who performed with Plant on October 21.
“I think it’s just about sunk in, I might be able to talk about it now,” House says with a laugh over the phone, three days after becoming the first guitar player other than Jimmy Page to perform “Stairway To Heaven” with Plant.
Getting the call to perform with Robert Plant
House received a phone call from Taylor’s guitar technician on Sunday, October 15 asking if he’d be available for a last-minute charity performance less than a week later on Saturday, October 21.
Taylor had injured his hand days before, leaving the temporary band in need of another guitarist. At the time, former Reef guitarist House was focused on writing material for his band Goldray’s new album.
“We were coming back from the memorial service for my partner’s godmother,” he recalls of the moment he received the call. “I’m just in the process of writing the record at my studio at home. We’re halfway through writing at the moment, we’re right in the middle of it.”
Suddenly, House had less than a week to rehearse with the band and learn the songs for the charity performance. “It was a combination between uber excitement and terrifying,” he says of his reaction to the call. “I literally only had four days to learn everything.”
Rehearsing ‘Stairway To Heaven’
The next day, Monday October 16, House began rehearsing with the band ahead of the performance on Saturday evening. Along with House, Plant and Taylor, the band consisted of Rod Stewart’s drummer David Palmer, bass player Guy Pratt who previously toured with Coverdale and Page in Japan, Taylor’s son Andy J Taylor on guitar, singer Anne Rani and musician Dino Jelusick on keyboard and backing vocals.
House was already nervous about the performance and the amount of songs he had to learn, but it was only once he entered the rehearsal studio with the band that he was told they were going to perform “Stairway To Heaven” on stage with Plant days later.
Many people have assumed that the song’s inclusion in the evening’s setlist came at Taylor’s request. But House reveals that Plant performing “Stairway To Heaven” was a specific request from a donor to The Cancer Awareness Trust.
“Someone bid a huge amount of money for him to sing this song,” House says. “There is a good circle of karma around it. That raised a six figure sum for the charity, that one song.”
With a substantial charity donation on the table, Plant agreed to perform the song solo for the first time. The band rehearsed the song together with Plant in the days leading up to the concert, helping him to overcome his complicated relationship with “Stairway To Heaven”.
Discussing the song in an interview with Rolling Stone last year, Plant said that “when I hear it in isolation, I feel overwhelmed for every single reason you could imagine.” And in 2020, Plant told AXS TV that the song “belongs to a particular time.” Speaking to interviewer Dan Rather, Plant explained that “as much as I like it, I’m not wedded to that whole deal now.”
“’Stairway To Heaven’ is an amazing song but I think all the baggage that’s been attached to it has made Robert uneasy,” House says. “It’s made such an impact and people have so many ideas about it and expectations, it’s a bit of a millstone around his neck, or has been,” he continues. “I can really understand that and Andy Taylor and everyone in the room worked really hard not to make him feel that.”
Plant planned to join the band to perform three Led Zeppelin songs at the end of the performance: “Thank You”, “Black Dog” and “Stairway To Heaven”. Plant asked the band to also perform the Donovan song “Season Of The Witch”, a staple of his recent live shows with Saving Grace, which became the show’s finale.
For Pratt, who performed alongside Page and Coverdale in Japan in December 1993, finally performing “Black Dog” alongside Plant was a highlight.
“When he came to the first rehearsal, when he picks up a microphone and makes the first Robert Plant noise down the microphone, that’s the sound you’ve only ever heard come through your stereo, or TV or big speakers somewhere,” House says. “But it was actually in the room with you. I talked about this with everyone, it was such a strange, wonderful magical experience.”
The band rehearsed the songs multiple times, including “Stairway To Heaven”.
“When Robert Plant walked into the room and I had to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with him for the first time in a small enclosed environment, that was probably the most pressured professional situation I have ever, ever come across,” House says. “I’m in a small room with my hero playing the most famous of his songs.”
Readers who have seen clips of the show will know that the band tweaked songs, playing different arrangements compared to the versions that were officially released. That presented a challenge to the band members who had a handful of days to learn them.
“It was almost like learning to speak another language. In fact, it was more difficult than learning a new song because you have to unlearn what you’ve known for several years,” House says.
“’Black Dog’ is a complete reworking of ‘Black Dog,’” he explains. “15-year-old me would have been able to walk in and play ‘Black Dog’. I’ve known it since that age just as a massive fan and a guitar player. So that wouldn’t have been such a challenge.”
A one-off charity performance
When it came to October 21, the day of the performance, House wore a shirt featuring dragons and flowers which some fans have speculated was a nod to Page’s iconic on-stage outfits.
House says his choice of outfit was “semi-deliberate”. The shirt had been purchased weeks earlier before he learned about the charity shows, he explains. “It just felt right,” he says. “I just thought that’s going to work. I think it did, as well. You’ve got to doff the cap to Jimmy if you’re going to be playing these tunes as a guitar player.”
Plant spent part of the day of the show at the Bewdley arts festival in the company of Bob Harris before making the short drive to the village of Great Tew which is home to Soho Farmhouse, a private members’ club in the countryside that hosted the charity event in a barn.
Plant was pleased to be at the charity event and took photos with attendees and other performers, his good mood potentially due in part to the football team Wolverhampton Wanderers’ victory earlier in the day over Bournemouth.
When he took to the stage, Plant discussed Taylor’s ongoing recovery, calling it “like a really, really weird movie … with no end!”
The band performed “Thank You” followed by “Black Dog” and then Plant sang “Stairway To Heaven” solo for the first time.
“I bet I enjoyed that more than you,” Taylor said to the crowd after the band finished playing the song.
Plant then spoke to Taylor and the crowd. “I know that in this contemporary age of digital stuff there’s every likelihood that other people will see that,” he said, facing Taylor. “So if they do, I offer it up to you and your success and to the whole deal that has happened here today and the future of it all. And also so it’s not just that, I offer it up to Led Zeppelin,” Plant continued, before adding with a smile, “wherever they are!”
Later on, after the performance ended with “Season Of The Witch,” Plant spoke on stage to introduce a RIAA award for selling more than 20 million copies of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album that he donated to a charity auction. “I love this music and I still love it now very much although I get a bit coy and shy when I have to go near it because it was such a long time ago,” he said.