By Steve Sauer
Chasing the inspirations of Robert Plant is becoming increasingly easier to do, now that he has shown interest in more kinds of music.
Yet no matter how much he has channeled Arab and African sounds in his music over the years — going back to the 1975 Led Zeppelin track “Kashmir” to a song like “Takamba” from only five years ago — it is American music that has arguably provided the most lasting effect. At the time he joined Alison Krauss in promoting their lauded “Raising Sand” disc from 2007, the word from him was that Americana music was more than ever before becoming his muse. Raiding the vaults of Doc Watson and Townes Van Zandt gave him some new impetus to forge ahead as a singer.
It should be no surprise, then, that his latest studio set, the new “Band of Joy” release from Rounder Records, stems almost exclusively from American roots music. With the exception of one track written by a former member of Fairport Convention, the group that also brought Sandy Denny to light and yielded the female vocalist heard on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore,” Plant has chosen 11 songs hailing from a variety of genres and geographic locations. The common bond for them all is their country of origin.
Back before Plant’s 20th birthday, he and his mates in the British Midlands would gig under the name Band of Joy wherever and whenever they could. The long-haired hippie music of the American West Coast particularly energized them at the time, Plant later commenting that he was driven at the time by his reverence for bands like Love, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Youngbloods. Shortly afterward, Jimmy Page came looking for a singer to perform in the new Yardbirds, he was sure he’d found the right man for the job when they learned of their shared interest in a live take of “Baby, I’m Gonna Leave You” by transplanted New Yorker Joan Baez. Their rendition of it, filled with dramatic highs and lows, became an off-beat highlight of the first Led Zeppelin album. Other parts of the disc reflected the work of American blues songwriter Willie Dixon, as did two songs on the following album as well.
Plant’s Band of Joy is the next step for one singer who, for more than 40 years, has consistently drawn inspiration from varied American sources.
Most of the contrast in approach today deals with his personnel, this time scooping up the best musicians Nashville, Tenn., has to offer. The understated Darrell Scott is the sleeper in the band, with an expressionless face tucked away behind a burly beard. In concert, one memorable vision of him has the multi-instrumentalist seated at his pedal steel with a guitar hanging at his waist for him to employ during the same song. As for the album’s co-producer, Buddy Miller, don’t let his exhaustive curriculum vitae in the Nashville music industry fool you, for he’ll occasionally zing you with a guitar solo you’d swear came from a hard rocker who couldn’t look less like this tall, gray-haired presence in a red velvet suit. His choice baritone guitar gives his solos those extra low notes that provide some additional punch.
Tickets for Plant’s series of summer concert dates went on sale in March and April, with little being announced ahead of time as to what the music would sound like. By the time the shows happened, the public did have access to the full list of song titles that adorn the “Band of Joy” album. However, without further investigation, names like “Monkey” and “Even This Shall Pass Away” don’t reek of the same instant recognition as would titles like “My Sharona” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Plant leaves the obvious cover songs to other artists, such as Bettye LaVette, who opened for him on some of his tour dates in July; this American singer’s “Interpretations” album release from May features her takes on historically notable British tunes like “Wish You Were Here,” “Love Reign O’er Me” and “Nights in White Satin,” not to mention several dalliances in the individual Beatles’ catalogs as well as a take on the Led Zeppelin song “All My Love.” Plant has criticized fellow Brit Rod Stewart’s four discs of “The Great American Songbook” for not straying far enough off the beaten path; of course, he once said the same thing of Emerson, Lake and Palmer when their sophomore LP turned out to contain not much other than a near-century-old classical work by Mussorgsky.
On July 13, 2010, while the general public knew precious little about what kind of a stage show Robert Plant would be presenting, he lifted the veil on his new album, playing half of it before a sympathetic crowd in Memphis, Tenn. Since five of the six musicians had made much of their names in the same state, holding the concert there was a stroke of genius on Plant’s part. Early on in the show, he told the audience Memphis was his second home; if anybody hadn’t already accepted him for his sincere stint with Alison Krauss, their hardened hearts likely melted at that very moment.
Judging from the reactions to the new numbers, the evening was a success. Among the very favorites of the evening came as Plant turned spiritual. “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” was a sing-along inside the Orpheum Theatre, either because the decades-old standard was recognizable or simply an easy lyric to pick up. The other spirituals aren’t on the “Band of Joy” disc, but two of them — namely “In My Time of Dying” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” — surely earned extra applause because they first appeared on Led Zeppelin’s back-to-back albums “Physical Graffiti” and “Presence” in 1975 and 1976. However, the accompaniment on these was faithful to versions that long preceded Zep’s hard-rock takes, and “In My Time of Dying” was part of a medley that also included “Oh, What a Beautiful City (Twelve Gates to the City)” and “Wade in the Water.” The treatment evidenced where these songs really come from.
It was on these songs especially that Plant benefited from trading off lead vocals with Patty Griffin. She’s another secret weapon onstage. In January, she released a solo album called “Downtown Church” (Credential Recordings), produced by Buddy Miller. During one stop on her solo tour that brought her to a stormy day at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Driftwood, Texas, she hailed Miller as “a walking encyclopedia of all-American roots music” and the person responsible for introducing her to serious gospel music. No matter who’s to be credited with making it so, Griffin now fits the part as a gospel singer, showcasing the kind of euphoric spirit Plant so earnestly had tried to bring out in Alison Krauss during their 2008 “Raising Sand” tour (during which I personally observed no less than five concerts). Griffin at times demonstrates the deep strains of a voice like that of Memphis Minnie, whose 1929 “When the Levee Breaks” with her husband, Kansas Joe McCoy, earned the cover treatment by Led Zeppelin for that infamous untitled album of 1971. At other times, Griffin provides something light and airy, suitable for the “Raising Sand” songs for which her best Krauss imitation is expected, such as the Grammy-winner “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Me Wrong).” She’s also Plant’s go-to person for harmonies on “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Griffin’s best results during the concert occurred during two of the new songs, one of them being “House of Cards,” the aforementioned track that flowed from the pen of Richard Thompson, former guitarist for Fairport Convention. The song originally appeared on the 1978 album “First Light” (Chrysalis) by him and wife Linda Thompson, with their version featuring a rich ensemble of various supporting voices. Band of Joy personnel have done their best to recreate this effect, with no member spared from vocal duties. Another of the in-concert favorites was “Monkey,” one of two album tracks to have been sourced from the 2005 album (“The Great Destroyer,” Sub Pop) by Low, a Duluth-based slowcore band whose discs Plant says have been lingering in his car for the past eight or nine years. On this song, the combination of Plant and Griffin’s vocals should have worked better than it did, thanks to them falling flat in places. Some of the time, their unsavory notes were drowned out by Miller’s deep and heavily distorted guitar.
For all of Plant’s attempts to use press opportunities in ways that would distance himself from the lingering and ever-distant shadow of Led Zeppelin, he must inevitably find it futile to do so. The second concert of his tour, in Little Rock, Ark., featured four Zep songs in a row. Granted, one of them was “Gallows Pole,” which one would rightfully argue evolved from international tradition centuries before it graced “Led Zeppelin III.” It is now the set closer, and the encores include “Thank You” and “Rock and Roll.” But again, note must be made that they sound like various offshoots of country music, given the twang Darrell Scott’s pedal steel offers “Thank You” or the rockabilly feel employed on “Rock and Roll.” Reacting to crowds’ enthusiastic reactions in Memphis and Little Rock, Plant even remarked between songs that he was sure the audiences would be into country music. He gave his own 1988 hit, “Tall Cool One,” the same treatment.
Recent memories of that fateful night in London on Dec. 10, 2007, are still ingrained in Plant’s mind, prompting him to tell one reporter he’d found the reunion concert with Led Zeppelin “too heavy.” He said in widely published comments, “Talk about examining your own mortality.” Plant now finds himself in the position to sing about death, which he does on at least two songs on “Band of Joy.” The track “Harm’s Swift Way” exists today only because it was one of the final tunes to escape from the brain of its writer, Townes Van Zandt, and onto tape in the days that immediately preceded his death on New Year’s Day in 1997. Van Zandt’s widow, Jeanene, was so moved in 2008 by Plant’s live take on the song “Nothin’” that she gave him a copy of Townes’ uncirculated demo of “Harm’s Swift Way,” with its dark lyrics centering on the meaning of life and the great beyond. That made it to Plant’s live set, but one song that didn’t is the one he uses to close his album, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” based on the words of a poem from 1866 that reflect on a wise Persian king’s observation that you can’t take it with you when you go.
Music as enduring and timeless as the songs Plant is now performing, even though they lack the immediate recognition of “My Sharona” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — make up one of the things that transcends the limitations of life itself. This is the essence of what motivates Robert Plant. And yes, it always has.
Steve Sauer is the editor of LedZepOnline.com, a contributor to Carol Miller’s nationally syndicated radio program “Get the Led Out,” and founding content producer of the web site Lemon Squeezings: Led Zeppelin News at www.LedZeppelinNews.com.
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