Band of Joy with North Mississippi All-Stars: Shudderingly Revelatory at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium
Band of Joy
War Memorial Auditorium
8 Feb 2011
Before rock was about rage, it was about slow, deep, complete soul-grinding coitus – the kind of flesh on flesh revelation that shifts realities and levitates bodies through the sheer force of attraction and friction that releases built up tension. If Band of Joy demonstrated one thing at Nashville’s War Memorial, it was the potency of carnal thrust as trance-inducer and firestarter.
And if one would argue that Robert Plant’s latest musical incarnation lacks the seismic sonic force of the band that gave him fame, it could also be argued that Led Zeppelin was a ham-fisted pummel to the stone solid, utterly mersmerizing grooves now conjured by Plant, songwriter/artists/multi-instrumentalists Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin, bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino.
Walking out with no fan fair in a black shirt and pointy boots, the dirty blond icon reached for his mic stand, wailed “Let me take you to the movies, let me take you to the show…,” unleashing an almost knee-bending frisson in Zeppelin’s sigmature “Houses of the Holy” that was as innocent as it was unholy – and it was obvious everything the audience knew was about to go so much deeper. Deeper, indeed. “Tangerine” became a meditation that transfixed and transformed, while the BoJ’s “Monkey,” which Plant tagged as “Lo-Fi” in his introduction, was equal parts sonic topography surf and an exploration of something just beyond the realm of white noise.
Indeed, “Monkey” could be the “Sweet Jane” of skin. Trance meets rural musical sensibiities, yearning and deliverance stretched across Giovino’s pulsing beats and Miller’s squaloring guitar tones, a bit neon underwater, a skosh futurist high beam. But it is in getting lost in the emotional forcefield, the tug of those rhythms that one arrives at a higher plane.
Higher planes – sexual and salvational – have much to do with Band of Joy’s narcotic effect. A steady vein of religion runs through – be it the gripping “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” delivered with a ferocity worthy of Pentecostals and intertwined with Griffin’s own full-throttle “Wade In The Water” interjection, Griffin’s break-out “Move Up” and Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” equal bits frenzy, nerves and breakthrough resolution.
Plant is a generous icon. Prowling the stage in full lion capacity, he sees no need to flex or hog to declare dominance – yet, nowhere is he more impacting than standing in the back blowing an intense blues harmonica to reinforce Darrell Scott’s wide-open, hard Appalachian yet almost elegiac turn on Porter Wagoner’s “Satsfied Mind.” Scott – the night’s banjo/mando/steel guitar/bouzouki utility player, has a craggy mountain voice that fills a room and can match Plant for power and for pathos.
Still, this show was not a tumble of harder, deeper, louder. No, Band of Joy’s strength – beyond the depths they seek in terms of rhythms, harmonies and emotional nuance – is the way slow feels intense and quick is euphoric. Like the yoga notion of tantra, which applies to more than sex in spite of what Sting might suggest, BoJ seeks to immerse the fan in a complete song experience: feelings, beats, cultures, moments. To be pulled from the shore, perhaps drowned, certainly delivered is only the beginning.
And exuberance is a big part of the deal. A romp through Los Lobos’ “Angel Band” was as sparkling and euphoric as anything a handful of amyl nitrate and Goldfrapp might elicit, while the redux of the utterly frugalicious “You Can’t Buy My Love” is pluck and effervescence, sass and vinegar on the half-shell. The latter also featured the Tinkerbelle-sized Griffin – in her knee high, skyscraping stileto boots and beaded tribal print mini dress – as a honey-soaked Aretha Frankin, throwing it out hard and letting it land where it will.
It is that sort of jubiliance that marks the thrill of musical consort. To come together, to writhe in the realm of melody and rock with abandon… For Plant, legs crossed like a mandrake root, body at times bent in half, there was the full tumble to the song, yet an elegance that added an erotic charge that belied anything more than total want. To surrender, to shake, to be fully present in the wash of notes is a strength only for those who can be unadorned – and it defined the man who welcomed the audience to “an evening of strings, voices and skin.”
Harkening back to his original Band of Joy’s run in England’s “Underground Clubs,” where stages were shared with unknowns like Pink Floyd and Richard Thompson, the ardor of the past culled a passionate presence as the Miller-driven dervish-feeling excavation of Thompson’s “House of Cards” was a howl of Zeppelin-esque proportion – shudder-inducing and hypnotic with its tremolo quiver and call and response almost Druidic vocals.
Those vocals – at times 5 voices raised in a wall of parts and truths – have a blunt force trauma impact, but always to a muscular celestiality. Even the darkness of “Gallows Pole,” a ransom for a man slated to die and running out of options, had a frenzy to the parts that suggested urgency, yes, but also a desperation that worked from a cellular level. It was now-or-never forevermore and then… and in that swirling, whirling charge, pulses ratchet up and the exquisite tension is compressed again and again until those voices burst into one final last moment of deliverance.
It is an urgency that can’t be faked, can’t be looped, can’t be sequenced. It is what real musicians, men and women who undrstand songs from the inside out, can coax and tease from what lesser mortals reduce to progressions of notes and chord changes. Even something as lilting as “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” is given a richer template of desire and need from the seamless execution and respect for the roots.
But it’s not just the ability of the players. It is more the essence of who these people are and the way they come together in the name of something sacred. “Ramble On” is equal parts mystic meander and cathartic arrival; as much freedom and exploration of self as rogue’s explanation. Yet there was a point of jaw-dropping combustion – buoyed by exemplary players who not only ignited, but pushed the storied rocker to a place where his voice shook with the full potential of the lyric.
Still in fine voice, Plant’s performance filled the room with an urgency of arrival, a need to be free, a will to be gone and the relentlessness of one who is possessed by drives and calmed only by the motion. It is not a choice that “Ramble On” demonstrates, but more an urgency to breathe and a recognition of what kind of fire creates this truth in motion. It is not tortured, it is consumed – and never has Plant sounded so compelling.
In the organic reality being created with the not-folk-based, but highly old school Band of Joy, the jagged places are part of it. To be able to hang onto a guitarline, a beat so deep you can fall into it, a voice that quivers with sentiment and power, those are the things that make music at its most unprocessed and raw so compelling… and when players this good come together, it is sparks and fireworks from the sheer chemistry and joy in the playing.
That raw essebtialism is absolutely the defining modality for “surprise” opening act the North Mississippi All-Stars as well. Playing as a duo Cody and Luther Dickinson – son of legendary Memphis producer/music man Jim Dickinson – put the guitar/drum wall of sound to full expression. Mining blues, rural song structures and gospel, the pair offered full-immersion to a coterie of unadorned songs that were all thrust, no waiting. It is red dirt, swamp, clay and dust that swirls across their spare reality – and yet the sounds they generated, truths they broiled and presence they offered was every bit as big as Band of Joy.
More moonshine than brandy, but every bit as polished, NMAS offered a glimpse into the haunted places that gave birth to much of what fuels Band of Joy. Soul-scraping musicianship and singing creates that turpentined truth that shakes you, but leaves you lighter for the experience. A purgative of utterly enjoyable effect.