While Robert Plant’s best recordings with Led Zeppelin remains his definitive work for many, his solo catalogue is full of wonder. He doesn’t always rely on Zeppelin-isms, but then, he shouldn’t have to. He did that first time around and spawned a world of imitators. In fact, some of his best solo work is represented by a couple of his 80s “pop” releases – 1987’s ‘Now & Zen’ being particularly wondrous. That album’s shiny pop-rock slant was almost the anti-Zeppelin, featuring a very forward-looking Plant. For 2005’s release ‘The Mighty Re-arranger’, Plant completely reverted to type; that album was the most Zeppelin-esque album anyone had released since that bands demise. It was as if Plant had taken stock of the huge influence his former band had on so many, looked around at the hundreds of Zeppelin sounding bands that had sprung up in their wake and realised he had the potential to do that better than anyone else. Fantastic as it was, I still preferred the 80s adult pop/rock Plant had explored previously.
In 2007, Plant’s career took an interesting turn. He teamed up with award winning country singer Alison Krauss. The resulting album, the warm and introspective ‘Raising Sand’ was critically applauded and undoubtedly bought Plant a new audience. His 2010 release, ‘Band of Joy’ (named after Robert Plant and John Bonham’s pre-Zeppelin band) explores roots and Americana styles further.
Firstly, ‘Band of Joy’ is a Robert Plant solo disc in name only. Plant has named his new backing band in honour of that old band from the Midlands, though the members themselves hail from much farther afield. For the new Band of Joy, Plant has enlisted some heavyweight roots musicians: vocalist and guitarist Buddy Miller has previously worked with country-folk legend Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin; multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott (who contributes most of the more traditional roots instruments here) is best known for his collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, while second vocalist/guitarist Patty Griffin is a star in her own right, having released several albums of her self-penned blues and folk music. The famous members of the Band of Joy are augmented by Byron House on bass and Marco Giovano on percussion, giving Plant one of the best bands he could hope for with regard to this album’s chosen musical style.
Of the album’s twelve songs, only one is written by Plant, although he is credited as having helped arrange the album’s three traditional cuts, the best of which is a dark and spooky rendition of ‘Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, which is sparsely arrangened. Plant’s aching vocal set against Scott’s banjo and Miller’s echoing guitar work (underpinned by occasional bass drum stomps) calls to mind the work of Duluth, Minnesota minimalists Low.
And by no coincidence, Plant covers two of that band’s songs here, singing each one in duet with Patty Griffin. Stretching out just beyond six minutes, ‘Silver Rider’ (like the Low original) has a dark spirit, but never becomes dreary, slowly pulling in the listener in with its darkness. Robert’s hushed tones are full of longing, but it’s the heavily reverbed guitar and Griffin’s whispered harmony vocal which truly captures the feeling of the original – and Low, generally. ‘Monkey’ makes a strong feature of similar instrumentation and vocal styles, but is played much faster, anchored down by Marco Giovano’s drum and percussion work. If you enjoy both these covers but have never heard Low before, you should make checking out some of their work a priority. They’re certainly reason enough to get excited about this release.
Featuring one of Plant’s strongest vocals within this set, a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Harm’s Swift Way’ features a great harmony vocal from Griffin, while being a decent rhythm based guitar showcase for both Miller and Griffin. The band sounds like a really coherent unit, as opposed to a bunch of musicians hired to back Plant, and here Plant sounds especially comfortable in his reinvented 21st Century Americana guise. A moody rendition of ‘House of Cards’ (a Richard Thompson composition, featured on the Richard & Linda Thompson album ‘First Light’) is equally well accomplished with Plant and Griffin tackling the lengendary couple’s work with ease. Even Miller’s guitar solo is a close enough approximation to Thompson’s distinctive and angular style to be a fitting tribute. A change in pace comes courtesy of ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’, which contains more than a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit; Marco Giovano gets an opportunity to play something a little busier and the whole band are clearly having fun. This is Byron House’s time to really shine though – his bassline wanders all over the chorus; his playing style is upfront and very confident.
The album’s only original composition, ‘Central Two-O-Nine’ (a co-write between Robert Plant and Buddy Miller) is essentially a banjo led blues workout, which blends seamlessly with the traditional cuts from the album. While Plant’s vocal is strong (albeit in an understated way, since the roots music Plant has made his forte here requires none of the overblown rock edges which made him famous), it’s Buddy Miller’s instrumentation which captivates. His plucked banjo leads the way, augmented by an unobtrusive bass and fairly minimal drumming (consisting of bass drum and brushes). ‘Angel Dance’ melds the album’s rootsy elements with a slighty more hard rock punch, making it the album’s only offering which nods to Robert’s past. Not that it’s really hard rock, of course – it’s just the guitars are a fair bit fuzzier and with a mandolin thrown over the loose groove, it’s hard not to think of Zep…just a little.
‘Band of Joy’ is a more than worthy follow-up to ‘Raising Sand’ (although takes a little longer to really get into) and by the time you’ve spent a while with it, it becomes nothing short of fantastic. Those looking for Plant’s rock styles may find themselves a little disappointed, but for the more open-minded listeners who’ve embraced his interest in exploring new territory, ‘Band of Joy’ will provide a huge amount of enjoyment.