Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Denver, June 21, 2008
“ Does all this gospel music mean Plant has found Jesus? More likely it means simply that he's found another musical genre to play around with. ”
June 21, 2008
Over the years blues/rock vocalist Robert Plant has come up with some unusual and surprising combinations of music and rearrangements of classic Led Zeppelin tunes, but his recent performance takes the cake: Saturday night at Red Rocks, Plant sang as a member of a gospel choira long way from "I wanna give you every inch of my love."
His new persona as a choir boy emerged about two-thirds of the way through his performance with country/roots/bluegrass songbird and fiddler Alison Krauss. Reprising her performance of "Down to the River to Pray" from the movie Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou, she sang the first half of the song solo, then was joined by Plant, Stuart Duncan and Buddy Miller for some a cappella vocals on the rocks. The distance of this subject matter from Zeppelin's typical topics was matched by the gulf between Zeppelin bombast and the sweet vocal harmonies heard on this tune and throughout the evening.
Plant and Krauss are touring in support of their successful album from last year, Raising Sanda project produced by T Bone Burnett, who is in the band for the tour. "Down to the River to Pray" wasn't the only gospel song of the evening. Those in attendance also heard "Green Pastures" and "You Don't Knock," the latter introduced by Plant with a reference to the spectacular rock formations surrounding the venue as well as to Stonehenge, because Saturday was the summer solstice. He acknowledged the religious nature of the tune but assured audience members they didn't have to be of any particular religion to enjoy it. So does all this gospel music mean Plant has found Jesus? More likely it means simply that he's found another musical genre to play around with.
Zeppelin fans hoping for some heavy metal were probably disappointed, but anybody who liked the "Raising Sand" album had a great time. The band played 10 of the album's 13 tracks and only three Zeppelin tunes"Black Dog," "Black Country Woman" and "Battle of Evermore." The group had been doing "When the Levee Breaks" on this tour but not last night, since recent events in the Midwest have taken the fun out of that one. They also threw in two songs from Plant's post-Zeppelin work, "In the Mood for a Melody" and "Please Read the Letter," which is also on Raising Sand and originally appeared on 1998's Walking into Clarksdale with Jimmy Page. Krauss sang several songs on her own, some from Raising Sand, others not: "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," "Through the Morning, Through the Night," "So Long and Goodbye to You," "Trampled Rose" and "Green Pastures."
Their tunes together were some of the best performances of the evening in no small part because of the contrasts that, however unlikely, work surprisingly well. It was the grizzled, howling rocker versus the sweet, clear-voiced country singer who includes several gospel songs on each of her albums. Plant had left the howls at home, staying fairly low-key throughout the evening. Having toured together for several months now, the two are obviously getting comfortable with each other. Krauss even improvised some harmonies on "Please Read the Letter."
"Black Dog" was a real highlight. A banjo started the tune by laying down the theme in slow motion. Plant and Krauss harmonized on the verse; then on the "ah-ah" portion, they laid out on every other repetition to let the audience join them for a call and response exchange. At this point in the Zeppelin version, a searing acid, blues-rock guitar swoops in for a clenched-teeth, white-knuckle solo. Last night this part was handled by...a fiddle! Some people have described the Plant/Krauss version of "Black Dog" as spooky. Perhaps a little of that effect was evident, but actually the performance sounded kind of sultrylike the next song Marilyn Monroe might have sung right after "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
Krauss looked great in a turquoise shirt and black pants on her slim, attractive figure, her appearance in itself a commentary on the line from "Black Dog" that she delivered without a hint of irony: "I don't know but I've been told/Big legged woman ain't got no soul." Plant was relaxed in a casual shirt, jeans and snakeskin cowboy boots.
When the Raising Sand tour was announced, it seemed that a pretty obvious concert tune would be "Battle of Evermore." The original version of that one featured Sandy Denny on backing vocals, the only guest vocalist on any Led Zeppelin album. Krauss and band did the song justice and then some. The acoustic nature of the tune also fit right in with the rest of the Raising Sand material. Krauss gave another nod to Denny, who died far too early at age 31, with "Matty Groves," a traditional English folk song performed by Denny's band Fairport Convention.
Since this one came up in the middle of Plant's "I'm in the Mood for a Melody," one of his first hits as a solo artist, it invited some consideration of the similarities between Plant's and Krauss' music. Krauss' albums usually include several minor key, mournful tunes direct from the smoky Appalachian Mountains and a few bluegrass tunes that sound pretty authentic. Plant also has dabbled in traditional English folk tunes; "Gallows Pole" comes to mind, a song that moreover has a similar feel to some of the material Krauss does. For those with an interest in music genealogy, if you trace the lineage of some of the mountain music that forms the basis, in part, of modern country music, you'll end up in England with some of the same traditional folk songs Plant has been listening to for some time. So it turns out that the Plant/Krauss partnership may not be so unlikely after all.
"Fortune Teller," from Raising Sand, was another highlight. Plant took lead vocals on this one and Krauss came in about half way through with some haunting, wordless background vocals somewhat reminiscent of "The Great Gig in the Sky" but several times more soulful than Pink Floyd could ever hope to be. The aforementioned "I'm in the Mood for a Melody" featured a fiddle duet with Krauss and multi-string master Stuart Duncan. T Bone Burnett, described by Plant as the mastermind of the entire project, stepped out front for two of his own tunes, "Primitives" and "Bon Temps Rouler," which added some New Orleans spice to the evening. "Nothin,'" a Townes Van Zandt song from the new album, was quite dark, suggestive of Zeppelin's "No Quarter."
As could be expected, the band was top-notch. They consistently lay down a subtle yet chunky groove that was often mysterious and atmospheric. Miller and Duncan seemed to change instruments on every tune and played practically anything with strings on it. They probably used more acoustic instruments than electric, but even the electric guitars were almost all-hollow bodies. Crouch stuck with an acoustic bass throughout the two-hour concert.
The Raising Sand album has a number of pictures of Plant and Krauss together. In one, they stand facing each other, Krauss looking at him while appearing elegant herself, but Plant is turning his head slightly away from Krauss and toward the camera. His head is cocked back and he has a school-boy smirk that seems to say "Look what I got!" Indeed.