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!

 

LP Lookback: In Praise of Led Zeppelin’s ‘In Through The Out Door’

*Picture of my original vinyl of Zeppelin’s ‘In Through The Out Door’ taken by your intrepid blogger

I like to think that I had to be drug onto social media. I am not nor will I ever be on Facebook even though I think it would help spread the word on B&V. A number of years ago my father called and asked if I remembered a girl I’d dated in college who I’ll call Tisha (name changed to protect the guilty, ie, me). “Why yes dad, of course I do, why?” He replied in the chilling words, “She hit my Facebook page.” At the time my father was 72. I don’t know what surprised me more, that Tisha would have reached out (it ended…poorly) or that my father would be on Facebook? A week later my father called me again and said, “Do you remember a woman from San Francisco named Karen (name changed to protect, well, me)?” I couldn’t help but reply,”Let me guess dad, Facebook?” Apparently the woman in question had left the message, “I only know one person with this name…” My father, ever the wit, replied, “Now you know two.” I think that sufficiently frightened the poor woman but I had to tell my father to either a) close this portal to my past, I’m married now or b) put a much clearer picture of yourself out there so these woman stop thinking I’m a 72 year old man. I mean I’ve lived hard, but not that hard…

All that was enough to keep me off Facebook forever… it’s a jungle out there. But when my daughter was old enough she started to dip her toe in the water on social media which, as night follows day, led my wife to a number of social media outlets. After a couple of hundred instances where my wife waived her phone in front of me to show me a picture of the Stones, I realized, ok maybe I should relent and get on a few of these things. So the actual reason I got on social media was to follow the bands I loved. It’s always rock n roll that drives me. Many bands would announce new music or new tour dates on Twitter or Instagram. It was just an alternative way to keep up with rock and roll now that terrestrial radio has all but died. As a side effect of being on social media, you can never really get away from the anniversaries of key events – birthdays, death anniversaries, album anniversaries, etc – of your favorite bands, albums, and rock stars. The month of August has been a momentous one: Springsteen’s Born To Run turned 45 last week and the anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic passing was this week (Lookback: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lost 30 Years Ago, Aug 27, 1990), all of which was duly noted, celebrated and memorialized on social media. I could have written something nice for Born To Run but the album whose release date was August 15th, a few weeks ago, is the one that caught my eye: Led Zeppelin’s final studio album In Through The Out Door. 

This blog is usually focused on new or vault releases from bands that have been around for a while. There are a lot of bands that I love who just haven’t released anything since I started this endeavor. Suffice it to say, I’ve never written anything about Led Zeppelin and I admit it might seem strange that I’d pick In Through The Out Door as a starting place, but this album will always hold a special place in my heart. I included it on my “Dirty Dozen” list of albums that only I seem to love, B&V’s True Confessions: The Dirty Dozen – 12 Albums That Only I Love… Time to Re-Evaluate?. The album came out on August 15, 1979 just as I was beginning my rock and roll journey. I had only been buying albums for about a year. In Through The Out Door was the first Zeppelin album I ever bought. If that’s how I started my actual journey through Zeppelin’s catalog why shouldn’t it be my first Zeppelin post here? When I was 13 I didn’t have a big back catalog of albums. And Zeppelin were always kind of mysterious to me… I knew “Stairway to Heaven,” “Dazed And Confused,” and “Whole Lotta Love” but not much else about them. A guy named Matt showed me a picture of Robert Plant in Biology class and I said, “Who’s that?” In Through The Out Door was the first record released after I’d started buying music so naturally it was my first Zeppelin purchase. I’m just happy I was alive when Zeppelin, the Who and so many other bands were still active. I wasn’t “all in” on Zeppelin yet, but in August of ’79 that was all about to change…

I remember in the summer of 1979 my parents got a new ‘Time’ magazine. I’d always flip through the pages. For once, that summer they had an actual rock and roll article and I was always starved for knowledge about this powerful new music that had changed my life. I remember the article cited a slump in album sales in ’79 and all the hopes of the record companies were pinned on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (which came out in Oct ’79) and Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door. It’s odd what I remember. Fleetwood Mac were coming off the mega-success of Rumors and expectations were running high. Tusk ended up being a somewhat bloated double album and Lindsey Buckingham took them in an experimental direction. The album was considered a bit of a disappointment (not to me, I love that flawed, brilliant album) but it sold 4 million copies which is amazing. Granted, it probably pales in comparison to Rumors’ sales of a kajillion records. 

The Zeppelin story is a bit more complicated. I remember the Chili Peppers’ video for “Scar Tissue” where it looked like someone had beaten the shit out of the band. It made for a great video, but in the case of Led Zeppelin, by the time In Through The Out Door came out, that was virtually their exact situation. By 1979 it had been three years since they’d put out an album, 76’s heavy rock album Presence. Prior to Presence, Zeppelin were riding high on 1975’s double-album Physical Graffiti. On hiatus before a second sold-out tour of America, Robert Plant and his wife Maureen were involved in a car crash in Greece and Plant broke his ankle (which inspired the lyrics for the epic “Achilles Last Stand”). The band, really frustrated they couldn’t return to the States and the adulation and groupies went headlong into the studio and recorded that pent-up frustration on what became their heaviest album, the aforementioned Presence. 

Finally back in America for a tour in support of Presence, the band got the tragic news that Robert Plant’s son Karac had died of some mysterious disease. That was a tough blow. The rest of the tour was cancelled and Plant returned home to grieve. The mighty Zeppelin went silent for three years which was a huge absence at the time. A lot changed in music from ’76 to ’79. Punk had come to the fore. The Punks singled out Zeppelin in particular as “bloated, dinosaurs.” People were actually wondering if Zeppelin would return at all. There were rumors that Page was going to replace Plant with Roy Harper, a singer who Page had produced an album for (and Plant sang about on “Hats Off To Roy Harper”). 

When Plant finally came out of seclusion he was keen on taking Zeppelin in a new direction. He was deeply effected by the criticism of the Punks. I should have included Zeppelin on my post about rock bands who reacted to punk (How The Biggest Bands In the World Reacted Musically to Punk Rock in the 70s), because Zeppelin were a band who did react to Punk in a big way. Things within Zeppelin had also changed. Drummer extraordinaire John Bonham’s alcoholism had deepened to the point where it was becoming a problem. Jimmy Page’s heroin addiction had also gotten a lot worse. There had been a time of tax exile as well that had stressed the band. Cue up my “Scar Tissue,” video reference. This band was in a bad place. 

I tend to think about Presence and In Through the Out Door as the yen and yang of Led Zeppelin. Presence was heavy, hard rock, helmed by Page and Bonham. In Through The Out Door was lighter, experimental (almost art) rock, helmed by Plant and in a first, John Paul Jones. This was the first album where Jones had a writing credit on most of the songs. The sound had fundamentally changed as well on this record. In Through… didn’t sound like any of the previous Zeppelin albums. That’s partially because Plant was energized and pushing for a new direction but it’s mainly because neither Bonham or Page showed up very often in the studio, bogged down by their addictions. John Paul Jones had a new keyboard, the Yamaha GX-1 synthesizer and he and Plant sat around writing songs, playing with the synth. 

While long time Zeppelin fans were disappointed with this album it did single-handedly save the music industry in ’79. It sold 1.7 million copies right out of the gate and went on to sell six million copies. It was a number 1 album for Zeppelin. Despite all that, Bonham and Page had said that on the next album, they were going to take over again and the mighty Zeppelin would rock again… alas, that never came to be. 

The first track that ever got played in Kansas City from the album was the single, “All of My Love.” People may consider it lightweight but I always dug that ballad. Zeppelin didn’t do many ballads. I was always told that the person Plant was singing about wasn’t a woman but his late son, Karac. I don’t know if that’s true, but I bought that rumor. It made it a more poignant song for me. Yes, it’s synth washed but it’s a great ballad. I didn’t buy the record immediately though, when you’re 13 you have to buy macho albums with macho songs… I had to wait for the second single, “Fool In The Rain.” It had something Zeppelin rarely had – a sense of humor. This was Bonham’s shining moment on this album for me. Sure the small drum solo isn’t “Moby Dick,” but it showed for me that he could still be captivating. 

The track that makes this album a must-have for me is the epic opener, “In The Evening.” When I told the Rock Chick I was writing about this album she crinkled her nose and said, “Its an OK album but I do love “In the Evening.”” Indeed. It’s got a great riff and an infectious melody. Having started with a great track the album also ends on a great song, the bluesy “I’m Gonna Crawl.” I have to admit, “I’m Gonna Crawl” sounds like the only track Page was fully engaged on. He seems kind of checked out for the most part on the record, I’ll fully admit. But when he did show up he kills it. 

A lot of people don’t dig “Hot Dog” a rockabilly, country rock throw away but it always makes me smile (Playlist: Favorite Country Rock Songs – Rockers Going “Country-ish,” Hidden Rhinestone Gems). “South Bound Suarez” may not be “Rock And Roll” but it’s a solid a rock and roll tune. The only track on this album that leaves me slightly cold is “Carouselambra” but that’s probably because it’s such a long track. I can remember my buddy Matthew playing his cassette copy of the album at the drive-in theater at a “Row Party” we had out there and just cranking “Carouselambra.” It’s a fond memory… 

There were other great songs that came out of the sessions for In Through… that they held back and eventually came out on Coda. “Wearing And Tearing” was directly addressed to the Punks, “Ozone Baby” and “Darlene” were all tracks that would have fit in well on the album. I remember reading in ‘Hammer of the Gods’ Plant wanted to release an EP with those three tracks prior to the actual album coming out. I think that’d would have been interesting. 

In Through the Out Door isn’t Zeppelin’s finest album. I think it can be seen as a transitional album. Zeppelin was leaving their blues rock past and heading in some new and exciting directions. It is a very forward looking album. The roots of Plant’s early solo work can be certainly heard here. The sad part of the story is we never got to hear where Zeppelin would have taken this next. During the rehearsals at Jimmy Page’s house for the American tour to support this album, John Bonham consumed a superhuman amount of vodka and died. The band couldn’t see a way forward without their mate. John would have been really hard to replace. 

While this album might not be anybody’s favorite Zeppelin album it’s still a worthy selection from their great, great catalog. I urge everyone to put this on and evaluate – or probably more accurately re-evaluate – this great album. 

Be safe out there. Cheers! 

Concert Review: Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, KC 9/10/18

2692037b / USA - Sensational Space Shifters Concert

*Photo from the internet, credited to The Telegraph and likely copyrighted

“Kansas City, here I come…” Robert Plant, September 10, 2018

The Rock Chick and I had been on the road for a little R & R the last four or five days. We’d been barnstorming around Florida, partying like escaped, pirate convicts. I knew we’d be exhausted by the time we got home on Monday, September 10th, but when I saw Robert Plant was coming in concert at the beautiful, historic Midland Theater, I knew we’d have to suck it up. After a brief but – and I don’t say this word often – lovely opening set from violinist/singer/multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman, who joined the Space Shifters for their set, we were all anxiously awaiting the man himself, Robert Plant.

I hadn’t seen Plant solo since the tour in support of Dreamland. I did see him with Alison Krauss when they toured together and it was fabulous. I can’t believe it’d been almost 10 years since I’d seen him. When the lights came down, and the band walked on stage, Plant, looking fit and dressed all in black, hung back in the shadows, near the drum riser. He danced around the stage like a prize fighter before the championship match… I couldn’t take my eyes off of him…with his long hair and full beard he looks like a grizzled lion. The band launched into the opening track, “New World…” from their great album, last year’s Carry Fire LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’ and Plant stepped to the microphone… and he unleashed…the voice. Wow, can he still sing. In the back of my mind I always wondered if he wasn’t getting back with Led Zeppelin because he wouldn’t be able to hit those notes. I was terribly wrong about that. I mean, sure, it’d probably be hard for him to do “The Immigrant Song” at top banshee wail every night (who could?), but his voice is as strong as ever. He could go from a whisper to a Viking wail in one breath. On stage Plant’s charisma is palpable. Not just the voice, the looks on his face, the dancing, the hand gestures, it’s all amazing. He’s truly still one of the best front men, ever. And from all appearances last night, he’s having a blast.

When I see an artist like Plant it gets me thinking. I don’t think rock and roll was ever originally conceived with longevity in mind. When it came along in the middle 50s, built on post-war teen rebellion, I think people thought it was just a fad, and it’d fade away. No one ever imagined that a man who just turned 70 could walk out on stage and still captivate an audience. But therein lies the horns of the dilemma for Plant – how does someone like him balance past glories with the adventure of new creativity. How do you blend your past with your present without being trapped by it. And lets face it, Plant’s past, namely Led Zeppelin, casts a big shadow. I thought Plant and the Space Shifters – Justin Adams and Skin Tyson on guitars, Dave Smith on drums, Seth Lakeman on violin, Billy Fuller on drums, and John Baggott on keyboards – do a great job of blending the old with the new. Plant spends half his set playing Zeppelin tunes, and half on his solo career.

Plant and the band seem to shift back forth, past to present, seamlessly but there are moments where I fear the crowd doesn’t quite make that jump. When Plant would try to speak before songs, like when introducing “Gallows Pole,” which was sped up last night and played like a psychedelic hoe-down, he was explaining it was a Leadbelly song… Some idiot screamed, “We love you Robert!” To his credit, Plant gave a somewhat exhausted, “Yeah, yeah, I know.” During one of the most beautifully sung moments of the night, the band had gone quiet and Plant was softly singing a passage of “Please Read the Letter” (a Page-Plant track that he’d redone with Alison Krauss and he described as a song being written by two “up and coming songwriters,” in his funniest line), some crazy, fucking idiot chick in front of me, screams, “You’re incredible” at the top of her lungs… ruining the moment in the song. The look on Plant’s face was telling… mild frustration, surprise, and a long way from pleased. It’s not 1972, honey. Sober up and let the man sing a ballad. Despite all that, Plant remained charming the entire night. His between song anecdotes were always enjoyable.

At this stage in his career, it’d be easy for Plant to reunite with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and travel the world singing songs from the seventies. It’s obvious to me that Plant doesn’t care about that fame and fortune thing any more. For him, it appears, the joy is in the discovery and exploration of the roots of all music. He blends folk, rock and roll, Middle-eastern and African rhythms into one big, new whole in his latest music. That’s why I love it. He sees the commonality of a Celtic folk song and something that springs from the Appalachians to something that’s from the bazaars of Morocco. He’s searching and in that search he’s creating some of the most interesting music of his career. The fact that he can deliver that AND old Zeppelin classics over the course of one evening is mind blowing.

As I mentioned, they opened up with “New World…” and carried on playing new tracks, the rocking “Turn It Up” from lullaby…And The Ceaseless Roar proved the night was not going to be a mellow affair. “The May Queen” his first single from Carry Fire was next and it was spot on. One has to give a special shout out to Adams and Tyson on guitars. They go from acoustic to blasting electric as effortlessly as Plant goes from quiet to loud. By song four, Plant had dug into the Zeppelin catalog when they launched into “Black Dog.” What I loved about it, the band and Plant played it perfectly, down to the call and response vocals, until the end where they stretched it out and jammed a little bit more in the style of Carry Fire than Led Zeppelin IV and then brought it right back to sounding like Zeppelin. It was like watching musical gymnastics. I will admit, the band did tend after that to stretch most songs out toward the end and I get it, when a band is grooving they like to jam, but if they’d cut a few of those jams short, they could have fit a few more songs in… I saw in Europe they were opening with “When the Levee Breaks” and were also doing “Rainbow” and I would have enjoyed hearing one or both of those versus the jams, but I’m splitting hairs.

After “Black Dog,” Tyson and Adams huddled on the side of the stage with an acoustic guitar and mandolin, respectively… Plant sang “Going to California” in what was perhaps the most beautiful moment of the night. I don’t mind admitting, I got goose bumps and tears welled in my eyes. I have no idea why I reacted that strongly, the performance just moved me. After that they played the Rock Chick’s favorite “Please Read the Letter” which was only marred by the aforementioned drunk idiot, and then the sped up “Gallows Pole.” It was then that Plant played “Carry Fire” the beautiful, Middle-Eastern flavored title track from his last album. I don’t know how Justin Adams was able to make the sounds he was making – it looked like he was playing a 12-string dobro, but I’m not a instrument genius. It was a real highlight for me.

The moment that brought the house down was the next track, from all the way back on Led Zeppelin I, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Skin Tyson sat down and played a beautiful acoustic solo intro that eventually led into the song. It was musically gorgeous. The band muscled into the electric portion of the track and the crowd, including me, went wild. After the exotic “Little Maggie” the band played an old Bukka White song, “Funny In My Mind, (I Think I’m Fixin’ To Die)” from Dreamland. While I love the song, they sped it up and played it almost in a Johnny Cash train-song style that lost me a bit. It went on for a long time.

The encore was a complete surprise and delight when they came out and played “In The Mood” from 1982. Plant typically eschews music from his first few albums so I was delighted they played one of the Rock Chick’s favs at the show. It was played more in the Plant-Krauss style, all natural instruments, piano/violin/great vocals, than the original synth version. It was smile-inducing pleasure. With that, it was time for the big jam – “Bring It On Home” which led to “Whole Lotta Love.” There was a weird interlude where they sang some song about heading down to the Gulf of Mexico… and then it was back to “Whole Lotta Love.” The crowd, who had been ready to release their Zeppelin mania in a guitar frenzy orgasm, seemed satisfied at last.

We were spent, but the Rock Chick looked up at me and said, “I’m tired, but that was awesome…” Plant waved to the crowd and said, “Remember what you heard tonight… see you next time, at least I hope so….” And right before left, he turned back and quoting the same song he’d quoted at the beginning of the night said, “Kansas City, here I go…” And with that the Legend, Robert Plant and his band left the stage.

I say this all the time, buy the ticket, see the show, folks. It was an enthralling evening of rock and roll. These artists are treasures and they ain’t gonna be around forever. I believe Plant when he says, “I carry fire for you, here in my naked hand…” He’s carrying the fire of rock and roll.

LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’

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It was early my freshman year of high school when Led Zeppelin’s final album, ‘In Through The Out Door’ came out. Say what you want about Zeppelin’s swan song, it’s still amazing that they could put out that kind of quality record when the drummer was a raging alcoholic and the lead guitarist was strung-out on heroin. Ah, the 70s. ‘In Through The Out Door’ ushered in a different kind of vocal from Robert Plant. He wasn’t the shrieking banshee of ‘Zeppelin II’ any more, he was actually singing. Purportedly, Bonham and Page felt ‘In Through the Out Door’ was too “mellow” and were making plans for a more rocking follow-up when Bonham sadly passed away. For my part, I think “In The Evening” is a great rock tune. When your guitarist is sitting in a dark room with only a candle for light, comatose on heroin, it’s hard to put together an album that sounds like ‘Presence.’

At my high school, there was a group of guys who put up a sign-up sheet in the lunch room when Zeppelin announced their US tour. The guys had arranged to rent a bus that would take anybody who had the money up to Chicago, the nearest concert venue that Zeppelin was to play on that tour. Zeppelin rarely played Kansas City… there was a story, probably apocryphal that they’d been booed off staged early in their career in KC and they eschewed returning. I heard that same story about Bad Company, so who knows. Anyway, I can remember the dejected look on the faces of the guys who rented the bus when the news of Bonham’s sad passing was announced by our high school, lunchtime DJ. They had been so close to seeing Zeppelin, yet so far. I’m still surprised they let us play music in the lunchroom, my school was run by fascists.

And so, with a foolish, massive intake of vodka, Led Zeppelin, a pillar of 70s rock ‘n’ roll and well, rock ‘n’ roll in general, had toppled. I felt like I’d missed a great party… well, not missed, but only managed to get in on the tail end of the party, after all the pretty girls had left. I was, however, consoled in 1982 when Plant emerged with his first solo album. Those of us of a certain age still love ‘Pictures At Eleven.’ Plant’s singing on that record was more akin to what he did on ‘In Through The Out Door.’ Anybody looking for “The Immigrant Song” style of singing from Plant should have known back then, it wasn’t happening. “Burning Down One Side” is one of Plant’s best rock tunes… “How could I fall, without a show…” is a lyric that I only understand on a visceral, non-intellectual level, yet still love.

Thus began, for me, a life long devotion to the solo music of this brilliant artist. There is very little in Plant’s career that I could say I don’t like. I wasn’t crazy about his side-project The Honeydrippers but only his album ‘Shaken N Stirred’ could be described as missing the mark (way too much synthesizer). I love that Plant has gone through different phases of his career. He’s always searching, always testing his limits. He’s collaborated with different musicians at different times, always tinkering with his sound and approach. If that’s not the hallmark of an amazing artist, what is?

After a brief reunion with Jimmy Page for the Page-Plant albums and tours, both of which I saw (and was amazed by), Plant returned to his solo career with a covers album, ‘Dreamland.’ Despite it being mostly covers, I loved ‘Dreamland.’ It marked another evolution in Plant’s vocals. They started putting his voice right up front and augmenting it with more nontraditional, world-music kind of sounds. That sound carried through the exceptional album of originals, ‘Mighty Rearranger’ and led to the ‘Raising Sand’ project with Alison Krauss. ‘Raising Sand’ was a lot more successful than I think Plant was prepared for. If his reluctance to get Zeppelin back together is any indication, I think Plant shies away from the expectations to out-do his past… I doubt we see him do anything else with Krauss on a major scale ever again, much like Zeppelin.

Since the Plant-Krauss thing Plant simply returned to releasing great solo albums. ‘Band of Joy’ was produced by the lead guitarist of the Krauss album, Buddy Miller and boasted a  great harmony vocal from Patty Griffin. Band of Joy was the name of Plant’s first band with Bonham and the album by that name was Plant looking back to rootsy covers. I really thought that was a great, overlooked album. He followed that up with 2014’s ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ an exceptional album. ‘lullaby’ is the type of album this blog was founded on: a great, latter day album from a more mature artist that’s criminally overlooked. The first single from that record, “Rainbow” is one of my all-time favorite Plant tunes… although even I’ll admit, that’s a long list. The man has a golden voice.

I mention the album ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ because the sounds on that album really inform Plant’s stunning new record, ‘Carry Fire.’ His backing band, the Sensational Shape Shifters is back – Skin Tyson, Justin Adams on guitar, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, John Baggot on keyboards and (the secret weapon in the band) Juldeh Camara on West African instruments. Plant and his band are pulling together American roots music, folk, traditional Welsh, African, rock and roll and “world-music” into a swampy gumbo of sound. As has been the case since ‘Dreamland’ Plants vocals are right up front in the mix, where they belong.

It’s easy to describe Plant’s music as a little mellower or quieter nowadays, but again, when you compare most music to say, ‘Physical Graffiti’ it’s probably going to sound mellow. The first single, “The May Queen” (reviewed earlier, Robert Plant: “The May Queen,” The New Song From The Upcoming ‘Carry Fire’) is wonderful up-beat acoustic number not dissimilar to “Gallows Pole.” It’s a perfect introduction to this music. The pace quickly picks up with the rocking guitar crunch of “New World…” You quickly realize on first listen, this album is special.

Plant then takes a huge left turn with the ballad “Season’s Song” which reminds me of the lush “Song To the Siren” from ‘Dreamland.’ Love remains the topic on the next track, “Dance With You Tonight.” All four of these tracks go in different sonic directions yet it’s all held together as a whole by Plant’s vocals… I just love where his voice is right now. He even manages a touch of politics in the topical “Carving Up the World… A Wall and Not a Fence.” I love Plant’s hippy, 60’s vibe. He’s like that cool  hippy uncle who let you drink beer before you were legally able to.

“Keep It Hid” is an atmospheric number that just seems to get better with each repeated listen. I love the guitar solo on that one…  “A Way With Words” is another piano driven ballad with a honey sweet vocal. The title track, “Carry Fire,” in another stylistic turn, has a middle eastern vibe that makes me feel like I’m sitting in a hashish den in Morocco with Plant while exotic women dance in veils around us… but that just might be me.

There are guitar driven songs here, like “New World…” and “Bones of Saints” that I think rock. Again, it’s not “Misty Mountain Hop” but they are rocking tunes. Plant’s vocals drop an octave and it’s hold on til the finish line time… The way Plant sings, “No, no, no, no, no, no no” in the latter track just grabs me…that and he name checks a Robert Johnson track, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”  With Plant, some of the non-verbal, singing, where he just holds an “o” or moans is as effective as when he’s singing words, if that makes any sense. He is probably the most charismatic singer I’ve ever heard. I don’t mean his physical presence when I speak of charisma, I’m talking about the sound of his voice. It’s an intoxicating, seductive instrument.

The album ends on another atmospheric, almost dark track, “Heaven Sent.” When Plant sings the lyric, “There’s an angel at the gate, singing a stolen kiss,” he could be singing about himself.

This album is great from start to finish. This is definitely a must-have record and for those of us down at B&V, it’s a candidate for album of the year. It’s a huge deal when an artist of the heft and talent of Robert Plant puts out a record. Everyone should hear this album. I can only hope I get a chance to catch him when he tours…No renting a bus this time around… Turn this one up and enjoy.

 

Robert Plant: “The May Queen,” The New Song From The Upcoming ‘Carry Fire’

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“It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen…” – “Stairway To Heaven,” Led Zeppelin

I am consistently amazed and impressed that artists can still surprise me. My corporate overlords had me traveling this week, as usual, and while suffering through the interminable wait for my flight home, I started checking out what the kids call, “the social media.” There were several indications that Robert Plant was up to something. His website had gone dark. It was literally just a black page. If you remained on the website long enough, letters started to rise to the surface, like a body floating to the top of a lake. Eventually the letters spelled out the phrase, “A Way With Words.” This was merely 48 hours ago…

The music press immediately began to buzz about a possible new album from Plant. I’ve been expecting a lot of new music over the coming few months – Beck, Van Morrison, maybe the Stones, Neil Young, Queens of the Stone Age – all have albums coming. I had no idea Plant was even in the studio, he wasn’t on my radar, and my radar is usually pretty good. We haven’t heard from Robert since 2014’s excellent, but alas, largely overlooked ‘lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar.’ I couldn’t sleep last night, insomnia is my cross to bear, and so I got up and logged on. I was bouncing around the internet and realized, yes, Robert Plant is going to release a new album in October, entitled ‘Carry Fire.’

Best of all, a new single, “The May Queen” has been released as the first track. I downloaded it immediately. His backing band, like on his last album, are the superb Sensational Shape Shifters – Liam “Skin” Tyson, Justin Adams on guitar, Juldeh Camara on “West African” instrumentation, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, and John Baggot on keyboards. These guys blend folk, rock and “world” music seamlessly. I bought a live record these guys did in Buenos Aires from 2012 and I just love it. Plant has been intent in the latter stages of his career in blending all sorts of different roots music – Celtic, Americana, African and even Welsh. It would appear he thinks all of this music springs from the same source, so why not mix it all together and see where it takes him. He’s quoted as saying he wants to blend his old music with something new. He’s certainly done that here. I love his sense of exploration. A lot of folks may be pissed that he’s not getting back together with Zeppelin (give it up folks, no means no), but I love what he’s doing at this stage in his career.

The new track, “The May Queen,” is a great start. I can’t find any writing credits on the web, although I searched extensively. With a name like “The May Queen” I thought it might be a traditional folk tune or a cover, but I believe Plant wrote this. The lyrics certainly seem Plant-ish and of course, The May Queen shows up in “Stairway To Heaven” so we have to assume this is Plant’s writing. The song is driven by a repeating acoustic guitar riff. There is some great African or “world” percussive elements. As has been case with most of his latter music, the vocals are front and center. Plant’s voice ages like fine wine, only getting better as time passes. There is a nice violin that accents the song as well. It feels folky and world beat all at the same time. The first line “Lay down in sweet surrender, your love’s so warm and tender,” embraces you like an affectionate hug from an old friend… I just love where his voice is right now.

This is a superb opening track, reminiscent of the first track from ‘lullaby,’ “Rainbow,” which was a track that is still in high rotation here at the house 3 years after it’s release. I highly recommend you check out this new Plant track. All these years later, he’s still exploring, digging through the past to find something new. It’s been a lot of fun to listen to. And, best of all, he’s released it just in time for his birthday, this Sunday August 20th. I look forward to spinning the new record when it arrives in October…

Happy Birthday Robert! Cheers!