Sunday, January 30, 2011

Plant’s Joyful “Rockin’ Hootenanny”

Robert Plant & the Band of Joy during last summer’s tour.


Robert Plant and the Band of Joy put on a wonderful show last Tuesday night at the House of Blues in Boston. A self-described “rockin’ hootenanny,” the concert was strong proof of how fully-immersed Plant has become into the Americana genre of music. The performance was more atmospheric country than rockabilly or blues, definitely new terrain for Plant and a progression even from the phenomenally successful Raising Sand album and tour he did with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett.

Particularly impressive this time around was the degree to which Percy ceded the spotlight to his bandleader, renowned guitarist Buddy Miller, as well as unsung hero multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott (the JPJ of the Band of Joy who shone on pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and vocals) and singer Patty Griffin. No matter what side roads Plant explores, he always has a stellar cast of fellow travelers supporting him, and that’s more true than ever with his current caravan. In fact, on a several occasions the main attraction withdrew to the rear of the stage and sang backing vocals (as only he can, of course) while Griffin, Miller and Scott took turns at the helm.

Having seen the former Led Zeppelin frontman on nearly every tour he’s done in the last 15 years or so, and several before that, I was struck by the now undeniable fact that he’s starting to look old physically. He is, after all, 62. Despite that, he lacked none of the vitality or charisma that made him the most legendary rock vocalist since Elvis.

And he was in great voice. Relaxed, confident, yet self-effacing, and even humorous at times, Plant’s focus was on appreciating the tunes, not attempting the vocal gymnastics or rock god histrionics of yore. People continue to harp on how he can “no longer hit the high notes.” Who cares?! I have no desire to see him try to sing like he did when he was 22. His voice is now mature, rich and resonant, rife with more gravity and nuance than during the high-wire act of his youth.

Rich vocal harmonies and bluesy gospel flavors were the predominant themes Tuesday night. These were most evident on Griffin’s “Love Throws a Line,” the Louvin’ Brothers’ “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” the bluesy banjo of “Twelve Gates to the City” (with a perfectly integrated vocal teaser of “In My Time of Dying”), and the righteous a capella of “And We Bid You Goodnight” that ended the evening.

In total, the set comprised 19 songs and lasted just over 90 minutes: Not the epic rock journey of pastimes, but a fulfilling offering nonetheless. No one left the show wanting. In fact, by my reckoning, quite a few were downright ecstatic as they hit the exits.

The band kicked off the show with a laid back rhythmic version of Zeppelin’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (about as bluesy as it got all night), then delved right into a spritely but quick rendition of Los Lobos’ “Angle Dance,” the single from last year’s Band of Joy album. Next came “Down to the Sea” from Plant’s underappreciated 1993 album Fate of Nations. Then there was the one nod to the collaboration with Krauss, “Rich Woman,” on which Griffin quickly established herself as more than equal to the task, delivering an earthier, swampy vibe while Miller cut loose with some frenetic twangy leads.

In the first four songs, Plant drew upon many of the distinct reference points from throughout his career, and did it in a way that showed the Band of Joy’s unique imprint on the tunes. But it was a slowly building start. Powered by engaging rhythm, slinky guitar and pedal steel, and Plant’s mostly reserved, but spot-on singing, the band gained momentum as it covered more ground.

As usual, much of the crowd was there primarily to hear reminders of the singer’s glory days of old, and Plant and Co. did an admirable job of presenting creative and compelling reinterpretations of several Zeppelin tunes (most interestingly and effectively on the retooled, pedal-steel-driven “Houses of the Holy”).

Among the other old gems buffed and mounted in new settings were: LZ III’s “Tangerine,” which got the full pedal-steel treatment of the original that even the Zep lads never brought to it in concert; “Ramble On,” reminiscent of the way Page & Plant performed it on their 1998 tour, with Miller, for perhaps the only time all night, echoing Jimmy Page’s tone and guitar solo; and a romping bluesy version of “Gallows Pole,” which rhythmically churned to a propulsive climax amid Griffin’s soulful chant-like wailing.

Despite all the nods to the past, this concert was really about the singer’s genuine enthusiasm for exploring American country and gospel. Fortunately, the stellar musicians in tow – including bassist Byron House and Boston native Marco Giovino – were more than up to the task.

Miller and Scott both cut loose on several occasions, particularly on the powerful reinterpretation of the understated “Please Read the Letter” from Page & Plant’s Walking Into Clarksdale album – a tune Plant had also performed with Krauss, but not to such dramatic light-and-shade effect as done here.

There was only the occasional nod to the blues, but one of them, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” featured Miller on lead vocals, while the Wolverhampton Wanderer supplied some all-too-rarely seen or heard blues harmonica. Bobby can still blow.

Overall, I was surprised at how little Plant featured his current release, playing just three songs from this band’s namesake album. The singer only even mentioned the album twice, the second time admitting the “understatedness” of the promotion. Clearly, the guy is not concerned (nor need he be) with selling CDs; that’s not what he was here for.

I was pleased, however, that at least one my three favorite songs off the Band of Joy CD did show up as the first song of the encore. The elegiac, atmospheric strains of “Silver Rider” brought the under-served album to the fore, if only briefly. Then, like a feather on the wind, it was gone, giving way to a near honky-tonk version of “Rock and Roll,” which gradually evolved into the riff-rocker we all know it as. Then the band bid us a gospel-ish goodnight and were gone.


OPENER

The Dickinson brothers, two-thirds of the North Mississippi All Stars, opened the show and I caught most of their set. In advance of the show, I had heard fairly high praise for the duo’s efforts, particularly the guitarist’s fluid playing. And, yes, the guitar playing was, in fact, impressive and fluid at times. The overall effect, however, struck me as a slightly more polished though perhaps less original or inspired version of what Jack White does. There was also significant suggestion of the Allman Brothers Band, as well as Alvin Lee and Ten Years After. To me the absolute stand out of their set was when the drummer emerged from behind the kit for an electric washboard solo that was something akin to Jimmy Page’s spacey theramin freakout during “Whole Lotta Love.” Novelty aside, it was pretty cool, but you really had to see (and hear) it to believe it.


Robert Plant and Band of Joy: House of Blues, Boston, 1/25/11

THE SET LIST

1. Nobody’s Fault But Mine

2. Angel Dance

3. Down to the Sea

4. Rich Woman

5. House of Cards

6. Love Throws a Line (Patty Griffin lead vocal)

7. Please Read the Letter

8. A Satisfied Mind (Darrell Scott lead vocal)

9. Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

10. Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go (Buddy Miller lead vocal)

11. Tangerine

12. Twelve Gates to the City

13. Houses of the Holy

14. Tall Cool One

15. Ramble On

16. Gallows Pole

17. Silver Rider

18. Rock and Roll

19. And We Bid You Goodnight