Robert Plant and my part in his renaissance
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy
Band of Joy
I like the musical trajectory Robert Plant has taken since the heady daze of Led Zeppelin, not least because my own tastes have described a similar arc. Not that I’m comparing myself to the rock icon, you understand; just that I find it interesting that Plant’s move into roots music mirrors precisely the path of a lot of ye olde time Zep fans I know.
I’m talking about Generation Jonesers who had Zeppelin as a staple of their musical diet and who have, through their own investigations, found their way into the folkways of the roots and alt.country scene that Plant is now involved with. What’s interesting to me is that the stories of these Gen Jonesers are often the same.
They were fanatical about whatever music they were into in their teenage years, were immersed in it so that it was a central part of their life and their identity, a state of affairs illustrated by the image of them moving into their first post-parental accommodation (generally a group house, often in another city) and taking with them — ahead of any other possessions — a milk crate (or ten) filled with LPs.
After that, moving into their twenties and thirties, getting jobs, maybe getting married, music was pushed more and more to the background. Other things, like air, became more central to their lives, though catching up with old friends, now flung to the four corners of the world, inevitably involved breaking out the old LPs, or maybe the repurchased CD versions of the old albums, and reminiscing endlessly about how great those bands were.
In fact, the advent of CDs was probably the first thing in the world of music that really grabbed their attention since…well, name an arbitrary date in the 70s. Of course, it was more a geeky interest in the technology rather than a rediscovery of music, and sure enough, the CDs we bought pretty much mirrored the LP collections they already had.
Good news for the likes of Robert Plant, no doubt.
I don’t know anyone who resented repurchasing the albums on CD, which probably says a lot about our immersion in a consumer culture, but it is also interesting to note the tremendous goodwill involved in such an uncomplaining financial commitment, a goodwill largely trashed by the music industry even since.
I also suspect there was an air of stupid, wide-eyed technophilia involved too, as if we expected the new format would offer up hitherto unnoticed magic within the music. Many would argue that, sonically, the opposite was the case.
But it is also true that buying the CDs of albums we already loved was a substitute for finding new music, and I wonder how that pans out in the greater scheme of things and how many new bands were neglected by record companies as they poured resources into reselling old rope?
Regardless, during these reunion sessions, any mention of “today’s music” was generally dismissed with a knowing scoff about all today’s bands being a pale imitation of the ones we grew up with, and that there hadn’t been any decent music released since…well, name an arbitrary date in the 70s.
Sure, we sometimes found an album we liked, though it was generally a solo album by someone from one of the “great” bands. (The one that comes to mind for me is the early 80s release of Robbie Robertson’s first solo release.) But by and large, music as a total immersion, life-affiriming part of existence was dead to us.
The LPs, if we hadn’t left them at the last group house, were relegated to the proverbial attic, and the milk crates went the way of, um, bottled milk in crates. There was a new-music shaped hole in the centre of many of us. And we felt the frustration.
For some of us, this meant trying to get into some new thing that someone had recommended, sometimes even pretending that such and such was good, but we never really felt it in our hearts.
And I don’t really blame us: for one thing, you can’t reproduce the shock-of-the-new that happens in your teenageish years when you hear everything for the first time. It stands to reason that any new music you do hear is competing against the old music, not just musically, but viscerally as well. How could it measure up?
There were exceptions, of course. Somewhere during this limbo period I came across Fiona Apple’s album Tidal, for instance, as well as a bunch of jazz and classical music that resonated in that marrow-tingling way, but even then it wasn’t quite the same.
I’m not trying to suggest that everyone’s experience of music is like this. Obviously it isn’t, and your mileage may vary. But I’m struck by how many people I know have gone through a twenty or thirty year trajectory of this nature, and who then, as I’m about to describe, arrive bewildered and delighted in the wonderful world of roots music.
That’s the thing about this next stage: it tends to happen in a manner that is both unpredictable and inevitable. That was precisely how America writer Flanney O’Connor (a Southern native, appropriately enough) described what she thought made her best stories good, and I must admit the combination of predictability and inevitability certainly does leave a satisfying feeling.
So now I go from the general to the specific.
My unpredictable moment came when I was living in the U.S. and read a review in No Depression magazine of Lucinda Williams then-new album, World Without Tears.
The real mystery in this series of events is why I was reading No Depression in the first place. I suspect I picked up a copy at the Borders near our place in DC because of something on the cover and then had a read of it in their coffee shop.
Regardless, somewhere within those pages I read the review of the Williams’ album and something it said made me risk the money and go and buy it.
Begin the revelation. And yee-ha! the revolution.
I’d heard of Williams and was vaguely familiar with some of her work, but World Without Tears cut through. It instantly roused in my middle-age self feelings similar to those Led Zep and others had in my teenage self. Her voice filled up my head and in Doug Pettibone I pretty much instantly discovered a new guitar hero. Not of the Page/Clapton/Blackmore sort, but a master nonetheless.
And so Lucinda Williams became my gateway drug to the whole alt.country/roots movement that was in lots of ways reinvogorating music world wide, especially, I suspect, for that older demographic of which I was part.
Of course, the big breakthrough was the soundtrack for the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?, an album (and associated video) that mainstreamed what was already a thriving and immense subculture, though subculture undersells it.
I’m trying to provide a timeline for how this music swept over me, but it isn’t really possible. Suddenly it was there, at the forefront of my musical consciousness, and I immersed myself in it. To find out friends were, at the same time, going through a similar experience, was a great and surprising discovery that added to the thrill of it.
The artists came tumbling into my consciousness. Vic Chesnutt, Buddy and Julie Miller, Hem, Liz Durrett, Whiskeytown, Son Volt, Lambchop, Nico Case, The Hanson Family, and on and on and on, including, sitting above them all, that two-piece band called Gillian Welch.
The fact that I happened to be living in the US at the time certainly helped me appreciate the music, and it was great to be able to visit Nashville and New Orleans and the Appalachians and the Smoky Mountains and other places that were the home of this music.
Though the highlight of this particular adventure was, by fluke and by far, arriving in Nashville at the same time Lucinda Williams was playing there, at, of all places, the legendary Ryman Auditorium.
I’d still say that concert was the best show I’ve ever seen.
So if that’s the ‘completely unpredictable’ part of the equation, where does the ‘inevitable’ bit come in?
It seems inevitable that this music found an audience in my particular demographic because, when you look at the music we were listening to — that Jones Generation who discovered sixties music in the seventies — it is easy to see that a lot of it was built on the very roots music that I have been describing.
Sure, rock’s major influence was black American blues and related forms like Gospel, but folk music ran through its veins too.
Whether it was bands like Fairport Convention or Pentangle or Steeleye Span or more crossover rock/folk acts like Jethro Tull or Zep themselves, our ears and our hearts had been well trained in the form, and so when we heard it in its alt-country incarnation it fitted perfectly into the new-music shaped hole that I described above.
But it went deeper and wider than that. I mean, pick a band. Anybody who knew the Stones probably new Gram Parsons and Keef’s obsession with country. We were all Dylan tragics which meant Band tragics which meant, even if we didn’t know it in those terms, roots tragics. And we all loved Neil Young and he probably more than any other artists embodied that crossover between American country/folk and the sort of rock n’ roll we had always been obsessed with. His album Tonight’s the Night probably still stands as the classic alt.country album, a release that pre-dates the category by about two decades, and that is truer to the roots part of the equation than anything by, say, the likes of Poco or the Eagles, bands that are often cited as influential in such matters.
Plant himself entered the equation (or re-entered) when he and Page did an MTV unplugged concert, the so-called Unledded show, where, apart from showcasing classic Zep numbers — including folk/roots songs like ‘Battle of Evermore’, ‘Gallows Pole’ and even ‘Kashmir’ — they dipped into their own growing fascination with folk music from around the world.
Songs like ‘Yallah’ and ‘City Don’t Cry’ showed them mixing their talents in a new folkways environment, and in a way that is relevant to Plant’s latest album, as we will see.
Anyway, that barely scrapes the surface of the interconnections. But was it any wonder we were ready to hear what we heard?
Discovering rock music in your formative teenage years was like discovering the world — especially in somewhere like Canberra in those pre-internet days when the sense of isolation was almost the defining characteristic of living there (and please don’t feel free to lecture me on what a great place Canberra is; I’m not saying it isn’t; I’m just making the point that in 70s it was very easy to feel that you were precisely nowhere) — it was like discovering everything, it was the shock of the new writ large in our little lives and it changed how we viewed ourselves and the world.
Discovering — or, as I am really saying, rediscovering — roots music in our forties, although it had a similar impact, lit a similar flame of musical joy, was quite a different experience. If sixties rock was the shock of the new, then alt.country and associated forms was a fall back into the warm embrace of something familiar.
Rock spoke to revolution and newness and even destruction; roots spoke to continuity and community and recognition.
So when Robert Plant showed up on an album singing with Allison Kraus and produced by T-Bone Burnett it was as if our Generation Jones musical world had come full circle. Suddenly, unexpectedly but perhaps inevitably, here was the figure that as well as any typified the times and music we had lived through now in partnership with the people who were god-like figures in the form we had just ‘discovered’.
The fact that Krauss/Plant worked so well together on Raising Sand was almost a bonus in this scenario, because their very presence together on the album was enough in itself, at least in terms of appropriateness.
But it was a great album, though it took me a while to realise it.
It combined Krauss’s bluegrass roots and Plants rock roots and met in a sort of fifties flavoured netherworld that brought out the best in both of them. Plant learnt to sing again, while Krauss affirmed her own position as the sweetest vocalist going and showed a bigger audience than usual why she had won more Grammy’s than any other artist.
For those who had travelled the musical route I’ve described, it was hard to think of a more fitting outcome.
All of which means that when it comes to the Band of Joy, Plant is trying to follow up not just his own rock-legend career, but an unusually successful foray into roots/alt.country music, and the temptation is to judge this new album by those standards.
I’ll resist as best I can, because I think that way lies unfairness.
Band of Joy, I suspect, will appeal more to those who were fans of Plant’s unledded period than it will to those who are out and out roots fans or who come to this album via Raising Sand.
Tracks one and three — ‘Angel Dance’, ‘Central Two-O-Nine’ — could almost come from that 1994 unplugged album, and I even found myself kind of wishing that Jimmy Page was there playing guitar. The same could be said for track 11, ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, a kind gospelly blues with gorgeous harmonies.
Beyond that, though, the material is straight from that netherworld of fifties-tinged rock n’ roots that distinguished Raising Sand, though I have to say I think the production here misses the magic touch of T-Bone Burnett.
Still, the band is fantastic, and I really do love the guitar sounds they get. Having said, the actual playing is pedestrian: none of it sizzled in the way I would expect. There was none of the blistering precision you associate with bluegrass nor even slower stuff that might give you an achy-breaky heart.
Which is another way of saying that Buddy Miller is a bit wasted here and I wonder why that might be. (Though it’s worth bearing in mind that Buddy Miller at his least impressive is still better than ninety percent of the competition.)
But Plant’s vocals are up to standard and his voice works well with Patty Griffin. By and large I think they’ve chosen/written good songs, the only real exception to my ears being ‘Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday’. Not a fan of the original and this version brings nothing much to the table.
Like Raising Sand, this one took a while to grow on me, but now that it has, it has.
But as you can tell, I’m almost genetically pre-disposed to like an album like this, so you might want to take that into account.
Me, I’m just happy Robert Plant is still making music, especially music like this, and I’m hoping the journey is far from over.