RETURN OF THE GOLDEN GOD Robert Plant & Band of Joy

In concert in Phoenix and previewing
new material while recasting selected gems from the past, the erstwhile Led Zep
frontman kills it.

 

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

 

Robert Plant is one wily old coot. He seems to take
mischievous glee in sidestepping expectations, and it’s a testament to the
man’s originality that it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole him into a genre.
Hard rock? That may fit Led Zeppelin’s Presence or his solo album Manic Nirvana, but
it’s a woefully inadequate label for Raising
Sand
, his collaboration with bluegrass musician Alison Krauss. Americana? Try pinning
that on the Portishead-inflected Mighty
Rearranger
.

 

This summer, when most other professional musicians can’t
even make a living performing their hits on the road, Plant is touring around the country with a ragtag ensemble called
Band of Joy, playing songs from an album that will not be released until
September. Compounding the weirdness is the fact that Band of Joy was the name
of Plant’s pre-Led Zeppelin group with John Bonham. He claims that this new
group, featuring alt-country guitarist Buddy Miller and singer Patty Griffin,
is continuing in the same free-form vein of its earlier incarnation. We’ll have
to take his word for it because the original Band of Joy never released an
album.

 

It’s safe to say that audience expectations for Plant’s July
20th performance at the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix were all over the map. Certainly
there was a contingent expecting an extension of the Raising Sand sound, but there were also a lot of drunken idiots
wearing those black Led Zeppelin T-shirts you remember from high school. This
is what Robert Plant goes up against every night, thirty years after his most
famous band’s demise. It’s one of the most extreme examples of a double-edged
sword you can imagine: Obviously, if it weren’t for Led Zeppelin, Plant would
not have the opportunity to be playing for a healthy-sized crowd in Phoenix at the age of 61.
But Led Zeppelin is the only thing that many in that crowd want to hear. How to
thread the needle?

 

Plant’s solution, as it turned out, was to sidestep the
issue entirely-for the first half of the set at least. He began with a trancelike
version of “Down to the Sea” from his underrated 1993 album Fate of Nations. From there Band of Joy
gradually opened up the drone to incorporate rock, folk and blues elements,
recasting gospel hymns, a Richard Thompson number and – why the hell not? – “Monkey”
by indie-rock trio Low in their own image. Buddy Miller held the whole thing
down, negotiating his way through Arabic maqam scales, delta blues riffs, and
lightning fast rockabilly licks with aplomb. Patty Griffin, pounding her guitar
and wailing away at stage right, impressed equally. And Plant, in the middle,
was an all-around class act. Voice as strong as ever, the occasional tonal
climbs deployed with precision and taste. And at this late stage in the game
we’ve been hit with another curveball: Planty is a dynamo on the washboard.

 

A good hour into the set the familiar opening riff of “Over
the Hills and Far Away” got the audience to its feet. Fists pounded sky as
guttural “Fuck yeah!”s exploded throughout the crowd like staggered firecrackers.
Not so fast, lads; this was Zeppelin done Band of Joy style, with Miller
building his own solos from the ground up, Griffin taking the high vocal parts
that once belonged to Plant, and the sweet sigh of pedal steel arcing up behind
them. It was more than the two beer-swilling Zepheads seated next to me could
bear. They got up and made their way to the aisle. One of them turned to me,
deep lines of sorrow furrowing his brow, and sniffed, “We won’t be back.”

 

These gentlemen were hardly alone; but the thing is, Band of
Joy were just so damned good that they managed to win most of the audience over
anyway. By the end of the evening, another drunken guy behind me started
bleating, “BAND OF JOY! BAND OF JOY! BAND OF JOY ARE FUCKING KILLING IT!” Indeed.

 

It was a remarkable evening. Leaving the Dodge afterward, I
felt like I had just attended a crash course on the past, present, and future
of popular music, presided over by a lanky old English hippie. In terms of
ambition and breadth, this tour is without peer. Sure, you can go watch Lady
Gaga change her costume 14 times, but if you want to see a band change genres just as often and – this is the
important part – love every minute of what they’re doing, you owe it to
yourself to catch one of these shows.

 

 

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