“It’s a wonderful thing, this Band of Joy,” announced a still lion-haired Robert Plant early in the band’s set. “Everyone is smiling all the time
and no one’s had a drug in hours!”
Yeah, the 62-year-old Plant knows even the slightest bit of self-mockery goes lengths to get an aging boomer crowd at the Hill Auditorium to swoon and, er
maybe nod approvingly from their comfortable seats, hazily recalling days back in '73, "gettin' laid" to Led Zeppelin IV.
Sure, Plant knows what his audience wants — tight trou, banshee shrieks and “Stairway To Heaven” — but the singer's one of the few rock stars of his generation who, as he's shown us since Zep’s dissolution, does whatever he wants, more or less. (Who can forget him turning down a 2008 Zep reunion tour in favor of extending his collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss, which, of course, gave up 2007's Raising Sand?)
No, he’s not exactly creating anything particularly daring with his latest backing combo, Band of Joy — which, you'll note, takes its name from the band he was in with John Bonham before the two joined Led Zeppelin. At least he's not pretending to be 25. Tonight he wore a stylish salt and pepper beard and a button-down shirt that mercifully remained buttoned up.
One third of longhaired white-boy blues revivalists North Mississippi All Stars — guitarist/singer Luther Dickinson and drummer Cody Dickinson — opened the show, performing as the North Mississippi All Star Duo. Their swampy nods to R.L. Burnside, Howlin’ Wolf and other standbys occasionally sounded tired and derivative, but when Luther stepped away from the mic to let loose on the fretboard, the results were spookily inspired.
Band of Joy’s sound mines similar modified Americana territory to Plant’s partnership with Alison Krauss, based mostly on atmospheric, tremoloed lead guitar and rich country harmonies. It's not a rough-edged sound -- it's rather tame, in fact. Any rock 'n' roll tension rose mainly from the goosebump-lifting guitar licks of bandleader Buddy Miller, who was an absolute wonder, often singlehandedly transforming pedestrian songs into something rich as the rest of the band thumpa-thumped behind him and Plant stalked the stage modestly, only occasionally letting loose to swing the mic stand about.
Plant's particularly fond of this sound, and this band, as much of the set was built on songs from Band of Joy’s eponymous 2010 album, and three supporting cast members were allowed lead vocal turns — Miller, singer Patty Griffin and multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, who impressed with his take on the country standard “A Satisfied Mind” and his ability to shuffle through a dozen or so different instruments, from pedal steel to octave mandolin, throughout the show. As for Plant, his own vocals, though delivered mostly in a lower register, were rich, clear and beautifully delivered. Somewhere during the last 30 years, the guy who once wailed like some rabid chinchilla can now sing with restraint.
Though few songs from the Band of Joy album (which is virtually all covers) stood out, excepting the jaunty opener, Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance,” and what was perhaps the night’s highlight, a creepy take on the traditional folk song “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” during which Plant hit on his upper register with spine-tingling results. Hence, the show’s success hinged on the (re)appropriation of material from Plant’s back catalog — including a smoky “Rich Woman” and a terrific “Please Read The Letter" from Raising Sand and a brilliant reinvention of Plant’s '80s-era hit “Tall Cool One” as a zippy rockabilly number. There was a generous selection of Zep tunes too; “Tangerine” built on a 12-string acoustic and deft pedal steel fit the band's country wheelhouse nicely, and “Houses Of The Holy" was nearly unrecognizable, driven by Griffin’s perfect harmonies while Miller periodically broke out to play a jagged approximation of Page’s classic guitar riff. A near tribal “Gallows Pole” closed the main set.
The interpretations of old faves were impressive, and gave Plant a leg to stand on in avoiding the, perhaps inevitable, Led Zeppelin reunion tour. Really, think about it: would you rather hear “Rock And Roll” played by four old men in an identical and likely inferior manner as they did 40 years ago, or would you rather hear it pleasingly re-imagined by the man who sang it?