Robert Plant to play Ann Arbor on Jan. 21.Written by Alan Sculley | | ASculley@toledofreepress.com
Any Robert Plant interview these days almost has to include an inquiry about his interest in a Led Zeppelin reunion.
But one really doesn’t need his words to know Plant’s thinking about the issue. His musical projects during the past three years — the period since Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-off concert as part of a memorial event for the late head of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun — pretty much make Plant’s intentions clear.
First came the 2008 CD, “Raising Sand,” which paired the former Zeppelin frontman with Alison Krauss performing a mostly low-key collection of rootsy bluegrass/country influenced covers. The CD went on to win the 2009 Grammy award for album of the year.
Plant’s latest CD, “Band Of Joy,” takes his exploration of American roots music in new directions, with the help of such stellar band members as guitarist Buddy Miller, mandolin player/multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott and singer Patty Griffin.
“I’m doing an interview with you because I am very proud of what I’m doing now in the present tense,” Plant said, once again shooting down any prospect of a Zeppelin reunion. “That really is my entire raison d’etre … I’m on a journey here.”
Plant thought it was understood that the 2007 reunion show would be a one-off event.
“I don’t think we’ve ever thought of it going any farther, to be honest,” Plant said. “I think the great thing about it was that we could do it, and we did it really well with dignity and with excitement. The idea of traveling around the sports facilities of the world is something that would have to be thought about really, really carefully.”
That opinion, however, may have changed in the aftermath of the reunion gig. There have been reports online and in print media that Plant’s former band mates, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones, are both interested in a reunion tour, and may have auditioned different singers (including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler) to fill Plant’s role as frontman.
The other musician involved in the reunion, Jason Bonham (son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) has also expressed enthusiasm in press reports for a Zeppelin reunion and said that he, Page and Jones spent time in 2008 working on material and rehearsing.
The fact that those rehearsals never panned out and that Jones recently has been gigging as part of the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures (which also includes Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age) and that Page has a solo album in the works haven’t silenced the rumors of a future for Led Zeppelin.
For Plant, though, playing the December 2007 reunion accomplished the goals he had for Zeppelin, essentially bringing closure to a band career that ended with the 1980 death of John Bonham. He noted that Bonham’s widow and mother attended the concert.
“The Bonham family went away from there going ‘Yeah, OK, that’s good,’” Plant said. “That made my heart sing.”
The quality of the show also allowed Zeppelin to go out on a good note, Plant said.
“That night was a spectacular night,” he said. “It was really something special. For me now, I can’t see any way of it carrying on. I just don’t know how, mechanically, it could happen. It (a tour) is such a huge deal. And I’ve seen people do huge deals. I’ve seen Genesis on tour, U2, people like that, and it becomes a military operation rather than just enjoying the time.”
Being in the moment creatively and as a performer — and moving forward artistically — are clearly top priorities for Plant.
And while the “Band Of Joy” CD is not a part two of “Raising Sand” by any means, Plant sees it as a next step in his musical journey — one in which he is gaining musical knowledge and learning to sing in different styles and intensities than during his Led Zeppelin years and on the eight rock-oriented solo albums he has released since Zeppelin.
“Obviously there’s a continuum because I went back to Buddy (Miller) and back to Nashville, where I knew I could get all of the jobs done in one place, and I knew there was a fund of people and a great understanding of music,” Plant said. “Now bear in mind, I’m the student here. And when we sit on the bus together, everybody else is in one place and I’m kind of playing catch-up on a lot of other American music that I didn’t know about.
“It’s a great learning curve for me, but it (the music on “Band Of Joy”) is a lot tougher and it’s much more tricky than ‘Raising Sand,’” he said. “It really does growl and clunk and it comes out of the church. It’s Sunday morning and definitely Saturday night.”
The album project (which is named after Plant’s pre-Led Zeppelin group, Band Of Joy) began with Plant recruiting Miller, a key band member on the “Raising Sand” tour, to produce, choose songs, recruit musicians and coordinate recording sessions for the new CD.
In December 2009 a first recording session was held, and after initially being excited with the results, Plant realized the direction of the music was a bit off. That’s when the “Band Of Joy” CD took on a whole different facet.
“Initially we created a very pastoral sound,” Plant said. “We were making a very pretty record. And over Christmas I realized I’ve got to have some sinew in there. I called Buddy and I said we need to pump this thing up a bit and get even more dynamic interplay between the kind of mood of the songs. He suggested would I think about Patty (Griffin), and I said ‘Of course.’ Patty’s got just the right voice to bring the edge onto the record, to create a bit more of a cutting edge. And also, [there was] a change of material, with a lot more kind of spook, so the second session became much tougher and much more psychedelic, if you like.”
The entire core lineup of Band Of Joy is on tour with Plant now — Miller, Scott, Griffin, drummer Marco Giovino and bassist Byron House — and the singer expects the new material to evolve further as the group performs its concerts. With Plant, Griffin, Scott, Miller and House all being accomplished singers, Plant said the shows have become a “massive vocal experience.”
The musical format and musicians involved are also allowing Plant to reinterpret some songs from the Zeppelin catalog, with Griffin playing a key role. He noted she takes the song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” down a notably different path.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am with Patty,” Plant said. “The way that she connects with me onstage is both humorous and incredibly, the voices together, because when we both let rip, when we let it go, man, with a couple of raised eyebrows, we take things up a notch.”
Robert Plant will play Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor at 8 p.m. on Jan. 21.