Robert Plant has always been a cultural carpetbagger. He and the rest of Led Zeppelin were part of the second wave of the British invasion, those brazen English lads that stormed America in the 60’s and taught us about our own musical heritage – the blues. But Zeppelin , though, turned it up to 11 and as a result raked in millions, and left a trail of Rock and Roll debauchery that left the original sources – John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and of sources Robert Johnson – wondering what hit them.
Plant, now 62, took part in a one-off Zeppelin tribute gig, promptly turned his back on a piles of cash, and the pleas of his ex-bandmates, and followed his muse to the same Southern climes where he first made his mark – but this time he rambled over the tracks to pilfer from the hillbillies. In his initial endeavor down this dirt road Plant was smart in tap the right guides – T. Bone Burnett, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, and covering Mel Tillis, Townes Van Zandt and the Everly Brothers – and it paid off in critical acclaim and 5 Grammy Awards and a successful tour.
So instead of copying a successful formula down to the details Mr. Plant presents us with his Americana expedition 2.0, or as he’s christened it The Band of Joy – a name he lifted from the band Plant and late Zep drummer John Bonham belonged to pre-Zeppelin.
This 2010 souped-up-hillbilly version features the fantastic Patty Griffin as his female counterpart on vocals and guitar, the extraordinary Darrell Scott on vocals, mandolin, guitar, accordion, pedal, lap steel and banjo (whew!) , Byron House on bass and Marco Giovino on percussion. and the only constant from the Raising Sand recording and touring band, Buddy Miller providing band leadership, guitar and vocals.
After an excellent (and unannounced) opening set by the legendary Great Lady of Soul, Bettye LaVette, Mr. Plant and his Band of Joy hit the stage of the I.M. Pei designed Mayerson Symphony Center in Downtown Dallas to a rousing applause by an audience mixed with old hippies and their hippie pups, preppies in dapper duds, glamed-out aged wanna-be groupies who 20 years earlier would have been a few miles away at the Lady GaGa show or the Mary Kay dinner across the street at El Fenix, and cowboys and cowgirls complete with pearl-snaps and Stetsons. They all came expecting something grand from the aged rock-god, and many of them were going to go home, ah-hem, dazed and confused.
Plant served the whims of the many by covering no less then seven Zep tunes (well, six-and-a-half since In My Time of Dying was spliced to end of a rousing version of the traditional Gospel number Twelve Gates to the City) and a couple of his early solo work. But these hard blues tunes were served up pretty much as they were on the Raising Sand tour – with a rustic and easy vibe. Well sorta…
Perhaps it was the absence of Americana stalwart T. Bone Burnett’s lo-fi stewardship but many of the songs veered toward the volume heights of Zep, with Buddy Miller giving Mr. Page a run for his sonic runes. But even with the bigger sound Plant showed the vocal restraint he displayed from the Raising Sand days. But Birds gotta fly and rock gods gotta preen and wail – an occasional mic stand twirl here, an ooo oooo there, but mostly tasteful restraint the material preferred.
In true communal spirit among the tunes from the upcoming self-titled The Band of Joy album (U.K./international – Sept. 13, on the Universal label, U.S. release Sept. 14, on the Rounder label) members of the band took a turn at the mic. Buddy Miller played a bustling version of Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go, a song written by his wife Julie, with Patty Griffin sitting in on Julie’s part. Patty Griffin balanced sass and salvation with the Blind Willie Johnson piece If I Had My Way, I Would Tear This Building Down. But the showstopper was Darrell Scott deploying his booming voice on a song that Porter Wagoner took to #1 on the country charts in 1955- A Satisfied Mind. Take that rock god.
“Some things have to change,” Plant said smiling after a relatively modest version of Houses of the Holy. The crowd seemed pleased, if a bit perplexed as to Plant’s new venture and career choices. But as long as Plant continues to pursue his muse the song will always remain the same.