Last night I saw Robert Plant’s wonderful Band of Joy at the Beacon Theater in New York. Although it hit the high-points of its recent CD, two-thirds of the playlist consisted of Led Zeppelin tunes, reconfigured to highlight their rockabilly origins. The sound wasn’t great—the impressive musicianship of Darrell Scott and Buddy Miller and some gorgeous vocal harmonies didn’t always cut through the mix. But the show was. And Plant was a revelation.
For me, Zeppelin was always about Jimmy Page. I appreciated Plant’s voice when he was singing in his "Dazed & Confused" mode, but a little of his preening and screeching went a long way with me. I’d warmed to him after I heard the charming record he made with Alison Krauss a couple of years ago and saw them put on a pretty good show in support of it. But the band behind them (despite the presence of Miller and Stuart Duncan) was laboring under the wooden direction of T-Bone Burnett, and there was a distracting disparity between Krauss’s primness and Plant’s rock-star swagger.
Plant explained last night that he was continuing the journey through American roots music he’d commenced with Krauss and Burnett, but determined with Miller’s help to make it “trippier.” To that end, he got himself a much more supple rhythm section (Byron House on bass and Marco Giovino on drums) and replaced Krauss’s irreplaceable voice with a hipper Patty Griffin. Plant wasn’t fronting a band, he’d joined one. He stood among the band with his own voice in the middle of the mix and he was happy to retire to a backstage microphone to provide backing harmonies when Griffin, Miller and Scott took center stage.
My wife and I always confront a dilemma when we go to a concert by a musician in his 60s who we followed when both he and we were a lot younger. Back in the day, neither of us had the money to sit up front, so we’re tempted to spring for choice seats in the hope that we can relive a better version of our own youth. But we’ve sometimes gotten close enough to see something of ourselves in the star’s plastic surgery and hair extensions. (I still have nightmares about some cadaverous faces I’ve gotten too good a look at over the last few years.) Last night, Robert Plant showed us what an admirably self-conscious aging rock star looks like. If you get the chance you should have a look for yourself.