Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 23-25, 2011
Festivals spend months planning, but for those who bring their largest acts to an outdoor venue, no amount of forethought can take care of the weather. With rain and thunderstorms hitting Ottawa hard throughout the first day of OIJF 2011, it sure seemed like its hopes for a big first night, kicked off by Robert Plant's Band of Joy, was in jeopardy. But as thousands of fans waited for the doors to open, and as photographers collected on a new scaffolddistanced from the stage itself, at Plant's request, and looking like a pretty darn good lightning rodsomething curious seemed to be happening. Everywhere you looked there were jagged bolts of lightning and ominous rainclouds dropping rain elsewhere in the city, but Confederation Park seemed to be situated in the eye of the storm, with the precipitation holding off until about 20 minutes before the end of Plant's set. Even then, it was a relatively light rain that began to fall on 11,000 fans at around 10:10PMa far cry from the torrential downpour of a few years ago, when the supergroup of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Brian Blade tested the true mettle of local jazz fans.
Bahamas, from left: unidentified singers, Afie Jurvanen, Jason Tait
But this was rock and roll, appealing to a broader demographic used to a little suffering to see their stars, and so if the threat of thunderstorms prevented some from making the trek downtown to Confederation Park, it did raise the question: could the park have actually accommodated many more people anyway?
Whatever the answer to that questionand it may be one tested later in the week with some of the other major acts coming to the stagefor those coming to hear Plant, being in that eye of the storm was, perhaps, a surreal experience, but one which the aging rock star leveraged to his advantage during his 90-minute set.
Toronto's Bahamas delivered a solid warm-up set that put the audience in an even better mood than it already was when it came through the gates. Bahamas is Afie Jurvanen's stage moniker, though the singer/songwriter/guitarist often expands to a duo with drummer Jason Tait, as he did for his OIJF performance. Fleshing the group out even further, with the addition of two backup singers, Bahamas' lineup may have seemed a bit oddjust guitar and drums, with Jurvanen singing lead and his two women vocalists adding some glorious harmonybut it worked at a time when, more and more, young artists are arriving at the conclusion that the longstanding use of a conventional rhythm section need no longer apply. Still, while most artists who play with reduced instrumentationlike Norway's Jarle Bernhoft, who is a veritable one-man banduse technology to give them greater sonic breadth, and while he did, indeed, use some tastefully gritty overdrive and an octave divider that, at times, brought his instrument down to the bass range, Jurvanen avoided some of the usual electronic suspects in creating a larger sound, most notably any kind of looping device.
Bahamas' amicable alt-country approach worked well, and he somehow managed to imply much more going on with his guitar by hanging onto open string pedal tones, or leaping octaves from a low end riff to a high end scream. Tait may be a meat and potatoes drummer, whose primary purpose is groove, but his lazy, behind-the-beat rhythms and clearly simpatico interaction with Jurvanen gave the music plenty of oomphand some brief moments of excitement, as the two headed into occasional, brief instrumental exchanges.
Still, Bahamas was clearly a warm-up, and when Plant took to the stage, just a few minutes after 9:00PM, he made it immediately clear that this was not just the reinvented singer who won a 2009 Grammy for Raising Sand, his 2007 Rounder collaboration with singer/fiddler Alison Krauss; this was a rock icon who has finally reconciled his undeniable past with a desire to remain relevant in the 21st century. Featuring the same group of outstanding musicians, many of them leaders in their own right, who appeared on his recent Band of Joy (Rounder, 2010)guitarist/vocalist/producer Buddy Miller, recent Grammy winner, singer/acoustic guitarist Patty Griffin, stunning string instrument multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, master of all things bass Byron House, and drummer/percussionist Marco GiovinoPlant jumped right into a reinvention of Led Zeppelin's massive "Black Dog."
Plant has long eschewed revisiting his Zeppelin days, but as he continues in his fifth decade of stardom, it's clear he's found a way to acknowledge his past without tarnishing his present. Deserting the thunderous riff that drove the original on the multi-million-selling Led Zeppelin IV (Atlantic, 1971), turned it into a slower, dirtier, even more visceral song, with the vocal harmonies (everyone in the group sang, making possible for some absolutely stunning five and six-part harmonies) turning it into a version recognizable enough to satisfy Zeppelin fans, but fresh enough to avoid any feeling of retro exploitation. Classic Rock? No. Classic? Absolutely.
"Black Dog" wasn't the only Zeppelin chestnut Plant rescued from the past with a modern facelift. Led Zeppelin II's "What Is and What Should Never Be" actually surpassed the original, as Plant demonstrating another quality more of his contemporaries should follow. In his Zeppelin days, Plant's range was so broad that he could just about hit notes so high only dogs could hear them. But with the passing of time, his range isn't what it used to bethough, in the range he does have (and it's still plenty wide), his voice remains strong and pure. Rather than try to hit those old notes, Plant reworked the vocal arrangement to pass them to Griffin in the chorusand so seamlessly that it was only perceptible to those who were paying close attention. Elsewhere, on a driving version of Led Zeppelin IV's "Misty Mountain Hop," he alluded to the upper register screams without ever actually going there.
Plant also chose his material wisely, from a repertoire that, based on a BBC Radio 2 recording of his 2010 show at London's The Roundhouse, is plenty large enough for him to mix it up, night-to-night, and keep thing fresh and interesting for the band...and the audience. Band of Joy may have played IV's "Rock and Roll" and "Tangerine," from Led Zeppelin III (Atlantic, 1970) for the Roundhouse audience, but they didn't get "Black Dog" or "What is and What Should Never Be"; nor did they get an equally imaginative reinvention of "In the Mood," one of two tracks Plant culled from earlier post-Zeppelin solo albums including Principle of the Moment (Atlantic, 1983) and Fate of Nations (Atlantic, 1993), from which the set-opener, "Down to the Sea," was taken, though here Plant turned the originally tabla-driven, four-on-the-floor song into an angular piece of folk-rock, driven by Miller's gritty chords and visceral bends, and Scott's definitive acoustic guitar.
If it seems as though Plant's set was dominated by reaching back to the past, that couldn't be further from the truth. The singer's fifteen-song set (including one encore) also featured a number of tracks from Band of Joy, including even grungier versions of Los Lobos' "Angel Dance" and Richard Thompson's "House of Cards," which Plant introduced by revealing that, while he's spent much of his life looking to America for songwriting inspiration, at this point in his career it's a great time to revisit some of the great British songwriters, like Thompson.
Charismaticand so comfortable onstage that moves which might have been poses for others were just a natural extension of his singing and interaction with the groupPlant's decades of experience meant that he couldn't help but own the stage, but he never hogged it. A generous leader, he regularly brought attention to the fine players around him, giving Miller a chance to shine in a throbbing, bluesy version of "Somewhere Trouble Won't Go"; Scott, a richly harmonized, countrified "Satisfied Mind"; and Griffin, a gospel-heavy "Ocean of Tears." Plant remained at the rear of the stage throughout these solo spotsclearly looking to avoid drawing attention to himselfsinging harmony vocals, and coming to the front of the stage only briefly, for a harmonica solo during "Somewhere Trouble Won't Go," giving Miller, Scott and Griffin plenty of opportunity to prove they were as capable of owning the stage as he was.
Robert Plant and Band of Joy, from left: Buddy Miller, Robert Plant, Byron House
Patty Griffin, Marco Giovino (missing: Darrell Scott)
Unlike some older stars striving to avoid the ravages of time, Plant wears his life experiences proudly on his facegrizzly, wizened, and feeling absolutely authentic and natural, whether he was encouraging the audience to join in on "Black Dog," moving around the stage, microphone stand in hand, or facing into the group, when the energy level turned particularly highas it did, many times during the performance.
But as hard-rocking as Band of Joy was, it was also a band capable of expansive dynamics, dropping to a hush at the start of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," as Scott's spare banjo and Giovino's simple bass drum and high hat created a simple backdrop for six-part harmonies that were absolutely breathtaking, here and throughout the set. This may well be the best post-Zeppelin group Plant has ever hadperhaps, even, eclipsing that group. It may be blasphemy to harbor such a thought, but for artists who are doing more than cashing in on past glories as they head into their senior years, it's a certainty that every one of them appreciates their early successes, but prefers to focus on the present.
Ask most artists what their favorite music is, and more often than not, they'll tell you it's what they are doing now. In a succinct 90 minutes, Plant and his appropriately titled Band of Joy proved that it is, indeed, possible to look back without ever becoming stylistically pigeonholedinstead, reimagining the music of Plant's past with a paradoxically rootsy but modernistic bent.