4/21/2011

Robert Plant: Music and Joy

When Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones joined together again as Led Zeppelin in 2007, for one performance in London (with the late John Bonham's son, Jason, on drums), hopes were raised that more performances by the foursome might follow. Robert Plant, however, showed no interest in continuing as the singer of Led Zeppelin, saying that he would rather pursue his own music. Millions of fans (including me) were understandably disappointed by Robert Plant's determined unwillingness to be trapped by the past, but as he proved at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on the evening of April 19, 2011, he probably was on the right track.

Robert Plant, who steadfastly refuses to be the lofty superstar that others want him to be, is now happily touring with a gathering of American musicians known as Band of Joy. (He had another Band of Joy, with John Bonham as drummer, in 1967.) The five musicians of the current Band of Joy, featuring Buddy Miller on lead guitar and Patty Griffin on vocals, are thoroughly skilled in blues, country, and gospel, and therefore are able to provide Robert Plant with the kind of musical setting that he evidently prefers these days. It is not the overwhelming glory of Led Zeppelin, by any means, but it is worthwhile music nonetheless.

The British vocalist actually began his show in Portland with one of the most famous songs ever recorded by Led Zeppelin, "Black Dog." He and Patty Griffin joined their voices closely, giving a homespun twist to a song that once stood as the pinnacle of wild rock'n'roll. It seemed that, in musical terms, he was not trying to completely deny his past, but he was not inclined to fully embrace it, either. During the course of his loose and earthy performance, he sang five more songs from his years with Led Zeppelin: "Black Country Woman," "Tangerine," "Houses of the Holy," "Ramble On," and "Gallows Pole." Each of the songs was given a new rendering, with Buddy Miller using an array of effects on his electric guitar (echo, reverb, etc.) to change the shape of the familiar tunes.

In addition to visiting the music of Led Zeppelin, he also performed songs from his own albums: "Down to the Sea" (Fate of Nations, 1993), "In the Mood" (The Principle of Moments, 1983), "Please Read the Letter" (Raising Sand, with Alison Krauss, 2007), as well as "Angel Dance," "House of Cards," "Monkey," "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," and "Harm's Swift Way," all from his latest album, Band of Joy, released in 2010. Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and Darrell Scott (vocals, guitar, banjo) were each allowed one song in the spotlight, and the evening concluded with all the musicians singing "I Bid You Goodnight," an old spiritual that appeared on an album by The Incredible String Band in 1968. (It must be noted that from the beginning to the end of Robert Plant's set, the sound was overly loud and constantly screechy, which detracted from the overall quality of the performance.)

Robert Plant may no longer be the young rocker who mightily bellowed "Whole Lotta Love" to enormous crowds in the 1970s, but with his hair as long and as shaggy as ever, he continues to be an impressive figure on stage. He clearly has a deep feeling, combined with an honest veneration, for the homespun music that he is offering to the public nowadays, and he brings a wealth of experience and talent to every song that he sings. Most of all, he conveys a mature joy in regard to his chosen life as a working musician.