wed 29/05/2024

Robert Plant, Band of Joy, Forum | reviews, news & interviews

Robert Plant, Band of Joy, Forum

Robert Plant, Band of Joy, Forum

Subtlety rather than shrieking from the former Led Zeppelin singer

Robert Plant: The voice is still there - and so is the hair

It’s funny how things turn out. Of the four former members of Led Zeppelin, John Bonham is dead, John Paul Jones is an odd and unpredictable figure, popping up only occasionally with an album or a collaboration, while Jimmy Page is, according to Mick Wall’s definitive 2008 Led Zeppelin biography When Giants Walked the Earth, lost in a twilit world of his own creation.

Which leaves Robert Plant, shaggy-haired singer and hip-shaker, and – unexpectedly, given that he used to be the kid-brother figure in the band - the one whose post-Zep career has been easily the most successful, both commercially and artistically.

The hair is still all there, miraculously lustrous, dripping like Spanish moss from an oak tree in the Deep South

So here he is again, three years after his brilliant collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, with a new band that revives the name and the spirit of the group he was playing in when Jimmy Page spotted him all those years ago and recruited him (and Bonham) for his “New Yardbirds” project: the Band of Joy. There’s an album out on September 13, and this gig was a taster for a bigger tour to come next month.

First things first: yes, his voice is still in terrific shape; and yes, the hair is still all there, miraculously lustrous, dripping like Spanish moss from an oak tree in the Deep South. And yes, there were some Zeppelin songs in the set.

To begin with he delved into his extensive back catalogue for "Down to the Sea" from 1993’s Fate of Nations album, then gave us "Monkey" from the new Band of Joy album, and a Richard Thompson song, "House of Cards", also from the new album; all were immaculately delivered by Plant and his bluesy, countryfied, rockabillyish five-piece band, who from the beginning were at that perfect meeting point between ease and effort, between focus and insouciance. "Please Read the Letter" was an excursion into Raising Sand territory (although the song first appeared on Plant and Page’s 1998 Walking into Clarksdale album), with Patty Griffin providing close-harmony vocals. Then came the first Zep tune of the night.

Over the years Plant has made a speciality out of reinventing and re-thinking Led Zeppelin songs so that they are turned almost inside out. He does totally unexpected things with totally unexpected songs. This time it was "Misty Mountain Hop", which lost its thumping three-chord riff and instead became a chugging blues. Masterful. Later he did a similar trick with "Houses of the Holy", complete with steel guitar; only at the very end was the song’s guitar riff allowed to make a fleeting appearance.

"Gallows Pole", meanwhile, came closest to old-school Zeppelin, a long slow chilling crescendo in which Plant let rip with his voice and unleashed a Zeppish howl. Cheers from the crowd (mostly blokey, mostly of a certain age). Less successful was "Over the Hills and Far Away", which was reinvented so drastically as to become almost unrecognisable.

Some fans may have lamented the lack of the sort of visceral, physical thrills that were once Plant's stock-in-trade, but this was a show about the pleasures of music that was subdued, subtle, rich and textured; when it rocked, which it occasionally did, it was with a sleazy rockabilly swagger rather than a brutal rock-and-roll thrust. My personal highlight: Townes van Zandt's "Harms Swift Way", which managed to be both serene and sad, warm and bleak.

The band were fantastic: periodically, guitarist Buddy Miller unleashed a dark and frazzled solo, playing off against the dense rhythms of drummer Marco Giovino; throughout, five voices blended and harmonised. Also, Miller, Griffin and second guitarist Darrell Scott each got a turn in the spotlight; each had a voice that could have carried an entire show. And at the heart of it all was Robert Plant, reflective and crinkly, 62 years old, growing older with grace and dignity.

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