BAND OF JOY: Traveling Musical Circus Rambles Through Berkeley
The evening of Friday, April 22nd was remarkably dry in the Bay Area. It was the opening concert of the season at the Greek Theater in Berkeley and, like all over the country, the weather has been unpredictable. I grew up in Berkeley and have attended concerts at the Greek since I was in high school. I saw presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy speak at the Greek. I saw Miles Davis throw down sheet music that Gil Evans had laid out for a set. I cringed when a crowd booed Charlie Mingus and was later admonished by Roland Kirk who said “if you alls treat me that way I just might wish a stroke on y’alls.” I saw Stevie Ray Vaughn, Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs and Van Morrison’s recent Astral Weeks tour as well as four Cinco De Mayo Festivals where the Greek became a true cultural experience.
On this beautiful spring night Robert Plant brought his new band named after his first band to the Greek to explore what Greil Marcus calls ” The Weird Old America” of Doc Bogs and Mississippi John Hurt, The Louvin Brothers and Charlie Patton. Plant’s Band of Joy is anchored by a seasoned group of musicians who are recognized as some of the best in the Americana: Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott who played a wide range of traditional country insturments from accoustic and electric guitar to the banjo, pedal steel, mandolin and dobro, Marco Giovino on Drums, and Byron House on base.
The audience was a mixture of old Zep fans, Americana fans and lots of people approaching retirement age who had brought their twenty year old kids to “see a legend”. Unlike the crowds who attended the Dylan and Mavis Staples concerts which I reviewed last summer, these fans were not disappointed by Robert Plant’s T-Bone Burnett overall and were actually interested in how he’s evolved Led Zeppelin songs into a new alt country bluesy stew.
Not that all the old Zeppelin songs were as transcendent as the originals. The band opened with Black Dog but this Dog was a slower more plodding version with all of Plants signature moans and yelps …the crowd immediately responded singing along with every “un-huh”. Plant included a healthy serving of Zeppelin songs including “Back Country Woman”, “Tangerine” (which worked perfectly in this new incarnation), “Ramble On” which rambled on for eight minutes and got the crowd going. The set closed with “Houses of the Holy” and “Gallows Pole” – one of the evening’s encores. I should also mention that the first encore was an uncanny old Jefferson Airplane song, “She Has Funny Cars” that caught me completely by surprise with Plant and Griffin doing the Balin/Slick duo letter perfect. “Our nod to San Francisco” remarked an ebullient Plant at the song’s conclusion.
The balance of the evening was filled with a half dozen songs from the Band of Joy’s first album including Los Lobos “Angel Dance”, Uncle Tupelo’s “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, and Richard Thompson “House of Cards”. The harmonies between Plant, Griffin, Miller and Scott were sublime, particularly on the evening’s closer, an a capella version of “And We Bid You Goodnight” (another nod to the Bay Area in that this song use to be a Grateful Dead closer as well). Plant was clearly enjoying himself and he has escaped the fate of a lot of his peers of being trapped singing note perfect versions of “Whole Lotta Love”. He was dressed like an old English squire in a sharp black suit and while he doesn’t swing the mic or struct around the stage there are enough signature stances, moves and vocal nuances to bring back memories of the past. The 62 year old Plant has eased into senior icon status and has unearthed an exciting new direction for his music.
Buddy Miller, Darrel Scott and Patty Griffin were each given a solo spot in the set – Miller doing the song he penned with his wife Julie, “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”, Scott doing a note perfect version of Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind”, and Griffin, a huge favorite in Berkeley, sang McRae and Wyche’s mournful “Ocean of Tears.” The review approach to the evening reminded me of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder concerts years ago.
The bands’ overall sound harkened back to the Buddy Miller Spyboy era. Murky,psychadelic guitar runs that built into loud creshendos and then retreated back into quiet spells to bring out nuances in the songs. The overall combination of instruments and vocals exuded old timey Celtic, country and bluesy influences. The songs’ subject matter were all about the fragility of life and what comes after death, love lost and found and the cruelty of a world filled with murder, violence and execution. In other words “weird old music” themes.
I was really excited to learn a few weeks prior to this concert that the North Mississippi Allstars would be opening for the evening. They performed a half hour set comprised mostly of songs from their new song cycle entitled “Keys to the Kingdom.” This groups first two albums recieved Grammy nominations and Luther Dickinson and his brother Cody (sons of the late great Jim Dickinson) have supported Mavis Staples, John Hiatt, John Medeski and the Black Crowes over the past few years. Appearing as a duo (I have no idea what happened to their bassist Chris Chew) they poured out a driving rootsy slide guitar workout harkening to the “new” Mississippi blues sound coming out of that region from the rejuvenated likes of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner.
In the sixties we were amazed how groups like Cream and Jimi Hendrix could explode with just three people on stage…we were use to seeing big blues bands like Paul Butterfield and the Charlie Musselwhite. But in the age of computers and music electronics, two people can also sound like five people on stage. Their sound included both retro sixties extended blues guitar runs as well as forward looking aspects in its audacity to be unforgiving about its influences – the richness of the music that came from the South where they grew up and originality of their father. It was Jim Dickenson who urged Luther and Cody to remake Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” as a one-cord hill country blues song. The boys did their daddy proud.
I couldn’t help but think as everybody filed out of the Greek that Hazel Dickens,who passed away earlier in the week, wasn’t looking down on this concert with a heart filled with joy.