By Mike Finkelstein
Once, more than 40 years ago, Robert Plant and John Henry Bonham emerged out of their Band of Joy and into the New Yardbirds, led by a talented upstart studio musician named Jimmy Page. The original Band of Joy was a vehicle for Plant and Bonham to play the music they loved — traditional blues, English folk music and San Francisco vintage hippie music (Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane etc) – as well as they possibly could. And if critical success was in the cards then so be it. Plant and Bonham certainly caught Page’s ear and, with their new singer and drummer, the New Yardbirds morphed into the infamous Led Zeppelin. The rest was truly iconic rock history. Now, some 30 years later, Plant has formed a new Band of Joy. And in support of their new self titled “LP,” they put on a splendid show Saturday night for a full house at the Greek Theatre.
The new Band of Joy consists of Marco Giovino (percussion), Patty Griffin (vocals and guitar), original member Byron House (electric and acoustic bass), Buddy Miller (guitar, baritone guitar, mandoguitar and vocals) and Darrell Scott (vocals, mandolin, guitar, pedal steel guitar, banjo). In this band, Plant has assembled a group that sounds rootsy, bluesy and quite folky as they put their interpretive spin on a set of songs ranging from Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” to Townes Van Zant’s “Harm’s Swift Way” to Porter Waggoner’s “A Satisfied Mind,” as well as the Led Zeppelin material. The folkier yet very recognizable Led Zeppelin tunes really do lend themselves well to the stripped down/turned down treatments that the Band of Joy thrive on.
When Robert Plant walks on stage it’s only natural to realize that you are looking at one of the true living legends in rock history. And Saturday night’s audience knew it well, most of them having grown up listening to Led Zeppelin throughout their formative years. To look at him, Plant doesn’t give the appearance of one of hard rock/heavy metal’s most vaunted front men. At 62, he remains slender, his hair is still long and he wears a short goatee. He never has actually looked much the part of a heavy metal deity, per se. Never has he looked like a bad-ass. He is without excessive piercings, tattoos, and all the other frills that go with the genre. His style has always leaned more towards jeans and a boutique shirt.
Of course he did sound the part while at his peak during the Led Zeppelin years. His voice then was a prototype for fusing sheer power and tender expression. On Saturday, he walked onstage unassumingly with his black shirt out and loose fitting over his jeans. Many times during the evening, he stood on the backline to deliver background vocals as his band mates carried the tune. At stage front, he had a memorable way of tiptoeing as he danced through the changes like a nomad cutting across a meadow. Occasionally he would kick the mike stand up, as he did in the old days. But generally speaking, we were watching a man who has happily reinvented himself over the years, taking things tastefully low key for the long run.
The program for Saturday night relied on several chestnuts from the Zeppelin catalogue, as well as tasteful choices in covers from varied and unlikely sources. The show opened with a transformed “Black Dog.” The audience recognized the song immediately and when the stops and starts that song is famous for didn’t materialize, they went with it and got into the new groove of that song. Changing the pace allowed Plant to sing at a more natural pitch, with no need to wail, with room for every sound to breathe and for the words to set in. “Black Dog” featured tastefully layered droning guitars, extensive tom work on the drums, light use of the cymbals, and a huge sense of open space between all the voices in the mix. Later in the set, “Houses of the Holy” also received a dramatic but oh, so tasty reworking. On this song in particular, his voice meshed with the angelic tone of one Patty Griffin to bring out hues in the song previously unheard.
Perhaps the most compelling instrumental voice in transforming the songs was the pedal steel guitar voicings of Darrell Scott. Every time he came in on pedal steel it took a song up a notch. Led Zeppelin’s recording of “That’s the Way it Ought to Be,” features Jimmy Page evoking a pedal steel guitar. On Saturday, Band of Joy did a show-stopping version of the tune in which Scott took the torch and ran with it on a real pedal steel guitar. It was a realization of the sort of music that many LZ fans surely may have wondered about over time. Scott also made beautiful contributions on the banjo, lending an ultra bluesy feel to songs like “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” In fact, with all six voices in the band in an eerie low harmonic interval, the song was downright haunting.
Having garnered 5 Grammys in 2009 for his work with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand, the inclusion of their collaboration, “Please Read the Letter,” was obvious. It is a simply beautiful tune and Plant’s and Griffin’s voices again shimmered together in harmony and in the wide open space Band of Joy provided them. During the encore, the audience ecstatically received a sparkling version of “Ramble On” and a sparser version of the centuries old folk song “The Gallows Pole,” in which a man asks to be forsaken while hanging on the gallows pole. Fittingly, the very last entry of the night was a very nearly (save for one guitar) a capella version of the Grateful Dead’s “And We Bid You Goodnight.”
Opening the show were the North Mississippi All Stars — on this evening a two man power house of musicianship represented by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of the late music legend, producer Jim Dickinson. They proceeded to switch off between different instruments for each song. Luther is a born killer on slide guitar and seemed to have a different guitar for each of many open tunings. He even had what looked to be a custom made mock up of a cigar box guitar like the old time rural blues men used to make for themselves. Cody spent most of the evening behind the drum set, occasionally coming out to play an amazing guitar duet with his brother. It should be very interesting to see where these hugely talented guys take their music in the future.
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