Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Triumphant Return – ‘Raising The Roof’ – Beautiful Alchemy

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I think I mentioned when I posted about Dave Gahan & the Soulsavers new LP Imposters, that there was a lot of great new music that came out last weekend. Springsteen released an explosive live LP recorded at the No Nukes concert in 1979. And, believe it or not, Sting released a new LP that caught my ear. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write again. Despite my maniacal focus on Gahan’s new LP, there was another album that caught my ear immediately. The long awaited new collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise The Roof. I can’t believe it’s been 14 years since their first album, the monumental Raising Sand.

I can still remember Raising Sand’s release like it was yesterday. Bob Dylan was right, time really is a jet plane. I was really into Robert Plant at the time. Truth be told I always have been and likely always will be into Robert’s music. He had emerged from his collaboration with Jimmy Page (Page Plant) which had yielded a couple of LPs (one of them live) and two tours both of which I was lucky enough to see. The second tour by Page Plant was like being transported back to 1974, but I digress. The first LP he did post Page Plant was 2002’s Dreamland. It was an atmospheric album of blues and classic rock covers. I loved that album. When I saw Plant on that tour I was so enamored that I bought a concert t-shirt with the album cover on it… and it was mustard yellow. I told myself it was gold… it wasn’t gold. I wore that thing for years until the Rock Chick finally nodded, “no.” I remember reading about Dreamland and Plant saying something about breaking in his new backing band by culling through his record collection for great songs for them to play. He must have a pretty cool collection. I can only hope it’s all on vinyl.

While I dug Dreamland, as I usually like albums consisting of all cover songs, I did hope that Plant would return to his solo career full-fledged so to speak, with an album of originals. My patience and hope was rewarded when Plant returned in 2005 with The Mighty Rearranger. What a knock-out that album was. I think Rearranger ranks amongst his best solo stuff. Around late 2006 or early 2007 I remember a brief interview of Plant in Rolling Stone. They asked what was next for him and he said he’d written down a bunch of song titles and given them to the band to come up with music for each one. He’d fill in the lyrics later. He did mention something about being on the way to do a benefit concert for a long passed blues guy (whose name escapes me) put together by T. Bone Burnett. Somewhere along the line, Burnett suggested for the benefit that Plant do a duet with Alison Krauss of an old Lead Belly song. So entranced by their combined vocals, they decided to record an album of duets with T Bone producing.

Having read the press stuff leading up to Raising Sand I was keeping an eye out for the release date. At the time I remember thinking, I’ll probably dig the Plant led songs. I didn’t know much about Krauss but I thought I could “suffer” through songs that featured her. The day it came out, I stopped on my way to work and picked up the CD. I wasn’t buying a ton of vinyl in the early 2000s, alas. When I got home I went immediately to our basement…which is where the stereo was and started playing Raising Sand. Within moments the Rock Chick was in the basement asking me what the great music was. When the album was over, we were both blown away. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “Wow that was kick ass.” Little did we know it was going to be a world wide sensation. While on the surface it seemed like an odd pairing. Krauss, to my great surprise, is an amazing singer with her roots in bluegrass. Plant is an amazing singer with his roots in well, rootsy music like bluegrass, the blues and folk. Their harmonizing is something akin to sorcery. It’s magic alchemy. T. Bone is the only producer who can help these two produce such an atmospheric, swampy mix of music which is the perfect backdrop for the harmonies. I was lucky enough to see Plant/Krauss in concert on the tour in support of Raising Sand and it was superb. The harmonizing was just as spot on live.

I assumed there would be a follow up and in 2009 it was rumored they were working on one but nothing materialized. I think they did record some stuff but Plant “didn’t hear the magic.” Plant, in my opinion, is one man who doesn’t like expectations and pressure. I think that’s why he’s never reunited with Led Zeppelin for anything more than one-offs. Although Bonham was a close childhood friend of his and that loss can’t be overcome. Plant formed Band of Joy and put out an album by the same name that was similar in spirit. He had Patti Griffin on harmony vocals… but it just wasn’t the same. As Joe Strummer said, and I’m fond of repeating, never underestimate the chemistry of the same people in a room.

A few months ago, now with all of us 14 years down the road, I heard Plant Krauss (along with T. Bone) were finally set to put out a follow up LP, Raise The Roof. With its similar title to the first record, I thought maybe this would merely be Raising Sand 2.0. There are certainly similarities obviously but this is not the 2.0 I thought it might be. They’ve picked some really obscure tracks – at least to me – for the new album. They must have dug back into Plant’s record collection again. They go from 60s era folk stuff to country and blues stuff that was recorded 90 years ago. Some of the artists they cover here I’ve never heard of. There is one original on the album, penned by Plant and T. Bone, “High And Lonesome.” One thing that draws me to a cover song is enjoying the new version but being reminded of the original. So many of these tracks are unknown to me, it almost feels like these are originals.

The sound of this record, to me, differs from Raising Sand as well. There was a swampy murk to their first record that I don’t hear as much of here. They lean on more traditional country rock/folk structures here. Its not a bad change, but feels different, like an expansion from the first record. On the Raising Sand there were a lot of tracks where they both sang and harmonized for the whole tune, co-lead vocalists if you will, but on Raise the Roof on many of the tracks Plant or Krauss takes a more lead vocal and the harmonizing is on the choruses. Subtle differences between albums and I don’t think the slightly altered approach hurts this new record at all. In fact, this is a great album and a great sounding one as well. It is certainly one of our albums of the year, if not the album of the year. It’s amazing how many “all covers” LPs came out this year (Gahan, Chrissie Hynde, and the Black Keys to name a few).

I’ll admit as (World I’ve already hinted at, I love Raise The Roof. It’s about all I’ve listened to since Friday. There isn’t a bad song here. The opening track, “Quattro (World Drifts In)” by an obscure Tex-Mex indie band from Arizona, Calexico, is a great opening track. It’s almost spectral with wonderful harmonies. It builds a real sense of drama and mystery. I may have to check out Calexico. On “The Price of Love” Krauss takes more of the lead vocal and it may be my favorite of her vocals on the LP. There’s a great little guitar solo on the song as well. It’s an Everly Brothers cover and could I say, is there a more perfect duo to cover on a duets LP than the Everly Brothers? Plant comes in vocally right under Krauss, it’s perfect, like Phil and Don. On “Go Your Own Way,” an Anne Briggs (the 60s English folk singer) cover, Plant takes more of lead vocal and it’s wonderful. Silky acoustic guitars and a mandolin as pillows for Plant’s seductive vocal. It may be Plant’s best vocal on an album of standout vocals.

Another stand out is “Searching For My Love” originally done by the Rhythm Aces, a great 50’s rock n rolls style tune, especially the chorus. They do a Lucinda Williams’ track “Can’t Let Go” which I reviewed earlier and it remains one of my absolute favorites here. “You Led Me Wrong” is an old country song by Ola Belle Reed that Plant turns into an almost bluesy thing and features a great violin. I think Krauss should play more violin whenever she can. I love what Krauss does with Alan Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” with Plant on the mischievous harmony vocal. And she was made to sing Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go.” Great high and lonesome pedal steel guitar floating around her vocals…

I love a pair of tracks toward the end of the album where they stretch out their sound a little bit. The lone original, “High And Lonesome” has a rumbling rock n roll vibe. This track would have been right at home on Plant’s last solo LP Carry Fire. It sounds current and at the same time ancient. Plant uses some vocal effects on the chorus while guitars clang around behind him in what sounds like an attempt to expand their sound palate. The last track, “Somebody Was Watching Over Me,” which sounds like an original is a Maria Muldaur track written by Brenda Burns. Muldaur who I’m unfamiliar with was another 60s folky. They turn that song upside down. It sounds like an outtake from Principle of Moments. I love the line, “My bad times are better than my good times used to be…” I can relate… The song sounds like nothing Plant Krauss has done before. Again effects are used for background vocals. “Somebody was watching” gets repeated over and over like a mantra until it’s almost menacing over a fuzzy guitar riff. It certainly points to a direction they could have taken if they wanted to completely break with their original sound… An intriguing detour indeed.

If you were like me and you fell in love with Raising Sand, be ready to have that same feeling all over again. With the success of that album I never thought Plant would agree to do another album with Alison Krauss due to increased expectations around any kind of follow up. I think I can say after hearing this album, he had nothing to worry about. Their beautiful alchemy remains solidly in tact. This is simply put, a great album.

Cheers and Happy (and safe) Thanksgiving this week to all of you in the U.S. especially if you’re traveling. This post came quickly on the heels of my last one but I’ll be celebrating with family, turkey and bourbon this week. I’m reminded that George Carlin once wondered why no one ever had sex on Thanksgiving… he thought maybe it was because all the coats are on the bed. Well, no B&V post gets written during Thanksgiving because… all of the coats are on the bed and the house is full of relatives…gads.

Review: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss Return With New Song “Can’t Let Go” From Upcoming LP ‘Raise The Roof’

Robert Plant has had a storied career. He began – or became famous anyway – as the lead singer of the legendary, hard-rock band Led Zeppelin. There were two bands that were worshiped like deities in the 70s when I was in junior high school: Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Of course I may think that because most my friends were stoners and stoners tend to gravitate to those bands. Maybe it was all that velvet, black-light art work… We weren’t listening to punk in the Midwest, we were listening to classic rock. After the tragic, preventable death of Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham, Zeppelin decided to disband. Bonham would have been hard to replace. And in all honesty I think Zeppelin had watched the Who try to replace Keith Moon with former Faces’ drummer Kenny Jones and realized it might be a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I still dug the Who and Face Dances is one of those LPs only I love… but the Who were fundamentally different without Moon on the kit.

Almost from the moment Zeppelin broke up – on December 4th 1980 – people have been clamoring for a Zeppelin reunion. Early on there were rumors that Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were going to dump bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and form a “super group” with the former rhythm section of Yes, Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums). I’m still not sure where those rumors came from. I think the four had jammed one afternoon. I think the rumor took root because the proposed name of the new band was catchy. They were going to be called XYZ… for Ex-Yes and Zeppelin. Which I have to admit is a pretty cool name. But, confounding the adoring, broken-hearted fans Plant put out his first solo record a year and half later, in June of 1982, entitled Pictures At Eleven. I absolutely loved that album despite Phil Collins playing drums… well, he’s actually a great drummer, but I digress. “Burning Down One Side” is one of my all time favorite songs.

From there Plant’s solo career has really been a journey. He’s explored the vast regions of roots-centric rock ever since. Every few LPs he’d change his band or change his sound. He experimented with what was new and current but always kept a foot in the bluesy, folky stuff that he sang in his early days. I’m not suggesting much of what he’s done solo is “Zeppelin-esque” but it does have some of the same qualities. As he’s gotten older Plant went from the banshee wail of those early Zep albums to becoming a fuller singer with a richer voice. I have absolutely loved the sound of his voice on his last few solo records like his last LP, Carry Fire. His late period solo career from Dreamland onward has been the stuff that B&V was founded on. I have seen Plant solo (and with Jimmy Page in Plant-Page) several times and the last concert of his I attended might have been the best yet.

Despite all the success and wonderful music Plant has put out over the years there are still those who would love to see a Led Zeppelin reunion. I think the show they did in London at the O2 Arena (memorialized on the live LP and Blu-Ray, Celebration Day) will be the last we see of Zeppelin. I think Plant likes to be relaxed. He doesn’t like the pressure that a reunion LP and tour would put on him… the pressure to match the heights that Zeppelin soared to in the 70s would indeed be daunting. I saw Plant at the venerable Uptown Theater with the Rock Chick years ago and after the main set, when Plant came out for the encore, he strolled out on stage with a cold Red Stripe beer in his hand. He looked as chill as they come. I certainly envied him the cold Jamaican beer. I think that’s the vibe Plant wants in his life. Who needs the hassles of expectations?

I think the pressure of high expectations is also what has kept Plant from doing a second duets LP with Alison Krauss. I can’t believe it’s been fourteen years since the wonderful Raising Sand. That album was a runaway success. I can remember hearing about it coming out and going to the CD store to pick it up… I brought it home and rushed it down to my “man-cave,” the rock and roll basement. The Rock Chick and I sat smiling and marveling at the wonderful harmonizing Krauss and Plant were doing. It was a laid back, rootsy affair. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “This is going to be huge.” And indeed it was. We saw them in concert on the ensuing tour and it was wonderful. They brought that harmonizing alive that night. There were rumors that they were going to record a follow up with producer T Bone Burnett back at the helm but it never came. The rumors seemed to indicate they were going to actually write new, original songs for the follow-up. But the bigger Raising Sand became the bigger those pesky expectations became. And I think Plant felt that pressure and decided to grab a Red Stripe and head the other direction…

We finally have a reunion involving Plant – perhaps not the reunion all the Zeppelin fans have clamored for – but a reunion I’m excited about. Plant and Krauss finally got together, with producer T Bone Burnett (also on guitar) for a new LP, Raise The Roof. I don’t know what is up with the use of the word “Raise” in both titles but hey, it worked last time. From what I’ve seen there are no original songs on this LP. It appears they’re sticking to the formula that worked so well with Raising Sand and the new LP will be another album of all cover songs. They’ve released the first single, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ great tune “Can’t Let Go.” Its a song from her masterpiece, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I can’t think of a better song selection for their roots-driven vibe than this Lucinda Williams tune.

Once again we have those two fabulous voices, weaving together like a finely knitted sweater. They sing over what has to be T Bone Burnett’s spidery guitar and (I’m assuming) the subtle drumming of Jay Bellerose. Plant’s voice is a little more dominant but Krauss is right there with him. They compliment each other in much the same way the Everly Brothers used to. They really kill it on this track. The Rock Chick exclaimed, when I played the track for her, “They’re just so damn good together!” They capture the spirit of Lucinda’s original but make it their own. This is a great kick off to what promises to be a fantastic LP… Here’s the link to the song:

While it’s been a tough week here at B&V with the loss of Charlie Watts, this great little roots rocker is helping pull me through. It’s strong enough it got me to stop obsessively listening to the Stones…(“the drummer thinks that he is dynamite”). I hope it gets you down the road to where you’re going… maybe grab a Red Stripe while you listen to this one and kick back. Its what Robert Plant would do.

Cheers!