Robert Plant’s band of joy

There is something supremely noble
about Robert Plant’s refusal to sign up for a Led Zeppelin reunion. In a recent
interview, the golden-curled singer spoke with enthusiasm about their one-off
O2 Arena gig in December ’07, but also revealed how he’d “swerved” that
evening’s after-show party and landed instead at Marathon – a seedy kebab
shop-cum-late-night boozer in Camden.

His subsequent flouting of what
would surely be the highest wage in rock history, feels momentous, in an era
when the sponsorship dollar truly dominates music. In Plant’s eyes, the
original Zeppelin, and indeed the O2 gig (a memorial for Atlantic Records’
Ahmet Ertegun), were moments in time, never to be repeated. In their place, he
chooses to try to spirit up fresh moments, as with this latest venture.

The album title, Band of Joy,
revives the name of Plant’s pre-Zeppelin psychedelic group in the mid-Sixties.
This, however, is a new collective, convened in Nashville, centred on a
seasoned session player, Buddy Miller, and the music is consistent more with
the rootsy sound of his latter-day solo records.

Aside from his strenuously
modernist Eighties work, Plant has always favoured deeper, lasting traditions;
from his early-Noughties combo, Strange Sensation, through to 2007’s Raising
Sand, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss (a sequel to which he
has also postponed indefinitely), he has avidly pursued his enthusiasm for
vintage R&B, blues and bluegrass, and so he does here.

Band of Joy imaginatively blends
those traditions. Central Two-O-Nine and Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,
two arcane blues standards, complete with chain-gang-moaning choruses, are
given a timeless quality by mandolin-picking arrangements. Elsewhere, I’m
Falling in Love Again essays a folksy R&B doo-wop, while The Only Sound
That Matters strikes out on a heart‑burstingly expansive country road, like a
weirdness-free Tom Waits classic.

On many of the songs, Plant sings
alongside esteemed country singer Patty Griffin, a vocal foil not too
dissimilar to Krauss and as on Raising Sand, the material is entirely made up
of cover versions. Angel Dance, the shimmery opening groove, for instance, is a
Los Lobos makeover, while You Can’t Buy My Love was a mid-Sixties hit for the
New Orleans soul queen, Barbara Lynn, here translated into a beat-group romp.

The latter, stylistically, may be
anachronistic, but its lyrical sentiment is central. Throughout, Plant sings
like a man revelling in his freedom to sing his own choice of song – his
freedom from Zeppelin’s high-pitched screeching and crunching riffage. We
should rejoice in his liberation, too – it’s another smoulderingly beautiful
collection.

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