Robert Plant: Band of Joy

Robert Plant
Band of Joy

Joy? Well, it depends whom you ask. As long as Robert Plant is alive and murmuring, there will be those who take their Led Zeppelin worship so seriously that they’ll be satisfied with nothing less than a full-blown Zeppelin reunion tour. For those still kneeling in the houses of the holy, anything short of a Robert Plant/Jimmy Page/John Paul Jones resumption — like, say, Robert Plant solo albums — represents a second-best-case scenario.

Plus, Zepheads got so tantalizingly close to that dream fulfillment back in 2007 when the band played the Ahmet Artegun tribute concert, a show that was scintillating enough to actually live up to the monstrously high expectations of such an event. But when it came time to a take it on the road for the millions in heat for it, and the many more millions in revenue, Plant balked. Page and Jones begged him to get on board, even threatening at one point, in one of the most absurd bluffs in rock history, to replace him with another vocalist.

Regardless of the inevitable disappointment among the Led Zep warriors, Plant’s decision to carry on away from his former bandmates paid off, both for himself as an artist and for his fans, as well. 2007’s Raising Sand, Plant’s collaboration with Alison Krauss was a triumph on all levels, a critical and award-winning smash that found Plant more inspired as a vocalist than at any point in the last two decades. Leave it to the golden rock god to know what’s best for us. By letting the air out of reunion hopes — Plant knew from one-offs like 1985’s Live Aid and 1988’s Atlantic Records anniversary concert about the perils of great expectations — Plant was able to do a stylistic aboutface and rediscover his first love: American roots music.

On Raising Sand, Plant offered up another first for him — sharing the spotlight with a second vocalist, sometimes singing oohs and aahs behind Krauss’s lead. And how about how hot Alison got during that album and tour? She became painfully fit, grew her hair to her Plant-in-1974 length, and started wearing sultry housedresses in concert. It’s your guess if Krauss’s newfound glow was a result of being next to Plant’s vulpine Pilates moves onstage or if there was, you know, actual lemon-squeezing going on. Either way, it was a symbiosis that worked both ways — the two sounded heavenly together.

After an aborted attempt at Raising Sand II — again, give Plant credit for knowing when to say when — Plant has the mike back all to himself on the new Band of Joy, named after Plant’s first 1960s outfit. The great Patty Griffin is in the band to provide vocals, but she is, unlike Krauss before her, truly in an auxiliary role. Her presence is definitely felt, but her pristine harmony singing is simply another of the band’s backing instruments. (Plant is halfway to an Americana heroine grand slam, by the way. Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin: Keep your cellphones charged.)

This year has turned out to be the year of dusty revisionist Americana, much of it thanks to the man who produced Raising Sand, T-Bone Burnett, who has made gorgeous throwback records this year with Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and others. Band of Joy continues the trend, though Burnett is replaced here by the legendary Buddy Miller, the guitarist from the Raising Sand tour.

Miller’s encyclopedic knowledge of blues, folk, and gospel — along with his impeccable taste — is key to Band of Joy‘s almighty musicality. It’s a collection of covers and traditional songs that, for the most part, you’ve probably never heard, and if you have, Plant and Miller see to it that you’ve never heard them like this. Miller was wise to only invite a handful of people to the party — besides Buddy and Patty, the new “Band of Joy” features only Marco Giovino on drums, bluegrass mainstay Byron House on bass, and multi-instrumentalist genius Darrell Scott on mandos, banjos, and steels.

Band of Joy will, without question, go down as a companion piece to Raising Sand, as the two are of a highly similar vintage. Still, as the new record plunges into the shivering guitar waves and mandolin delirium of the opening “Angel Dance”, it’s clear that this is a ballsier animal. And when Plant fires off some bratty yelps a minute in, it seals the deal. It ain’t Zeppelin, but this sounds sweeter than anything you could’ve expected Plant to cook up at this stage, no matter whom he’s working with.

You can mark how much fun Plant is having on any given project by how many times he improvises “well well” between verses, and on Band of Joy, he’s clearly enjoying himself. “Angel Dance” is preposterously great, and the next tune, Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards,” borrows Jimmy Page’s “Moby Dick” guitar tone, with a slinky dose of classic-Plant mojo that should light the bong of even the most ardent nostalgia trippers.

Plant experiments with a variety of folk exercises, including the only song here credited to Plant/Miller, “Central Two-O-Nine”, a strummy, bluesy train tune. There’s also “Silver Rider”, a Low cover, the album’s most ethereal song. It’s one that will recall the Plant/Krauss duets, with Plant at his most “What Is and What Should Never Be” whispery, though by the end of the tune, Miller is piling on a noisy, hypnotic guitar wash. “You Can’t Buy My Love” isn’t McCartney’s; it’s an obscure Barbara Lynn tune, but it sounds ’64 enough, as the buzzing guitars do the hop with swinging toms while Plant reminds us that he is, after all, a guy who always knew how to shake it one time for Elvis.

“Falling in Love Again”, another deeply mined find by the Kelly Brothers, is Plant offering up his most romantic croon, revisiting the sound he last mined this successfully as part of the Honeydrippers back in 1984. “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday” is a goth-roots standard, arranged here with Scott’s ghostly banjo. Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way” is given one of the record’s most straightforward folk-rock arrangements — very Wilbury-esque — and Plant lends these lovely lyrics the warm, cordial lilt they deserve.

“Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” shows up here, too, for you folks whose trajectory took you from Led Zeppelin to Uncle Tupelo. That tune is also on Willie Nelson’s record earlier this year, so the T-Bone Burnett/Buddy Miller circle of influence is clear. Both Willie’s and Plant’s takes are given the haunted banjo treatment, but Plant’s is spookier, with more weight in the rhythm section.

The record ends with its noisiest tune, a layered, blippy, psychedelic track, “Even This Shall Pass Away”, which showcases Plant’s best 2010 rock-speak wail; it’s as if to conclude that Plant remains a curious explorer and that each of these trips is worth taking. Or perhaps it’s the elegant country ballad that comes midway through Band of Joy that best sums up the album: “Is there one in here / Looking for the only sound that matters? / Was it what you thought?” Band of Joy, by both reaching back and by yearning for a decorous new future, is an album that matters. Now, does anybody remember laughter?

RATING 8 / 10