Robert Plant and The Band Of Joy – Live At the Artist’s Den (recorded 2010, released 2011).

Robert Plant is growing old with a dignity, a continued inventiveness and a disinclination to rest on his laurels that few of his contemporaries can match.

Led Zeppelin called it a day in late 1980. By mid ’82 Plant’s first solo album was out, and he’s hardly let up since. Initially he steered clear of Led Zeppelin material and forged his own identity and brand. With the passing of time he’s included some Zeppelin songs into his live act, but the versions are never imitative. He’s also got a lot more interesting after his early albums which were in a (then) mainstream AOR style. He hasn’t got complacent with age – quite the opposite in fact.

In 2007 he had a surprising smash hit when he teamed up with the sweet voiced Allison Krauss, one of the queens of contemporary country music and a renowned bluegrass fiddler. This unlikely duo had massive success with the album Raising Sand and followed that up with an acclaimed live tour.

This left Plant with an appetite for Americana, but he didn’t try to reprise Raising Sand. The band for the tour with Krauss was built around (possibly by) Buddy Miller, another of these interesting musicians who has all sorts of irons in all sorts of fires (producer, solo artist, songwriter, ace guitar player) and who seemed for a while to be at the centre of an intersecting set of currents by which Nashville and 60s British rock came together.

Now, this all really fits in with my current interest in Darrell Scott, because Scott was one of the players that Miller recruited for the album and tour that he and Plant planned.

The resulting album was another notable success for Plant whose post-Zeppelin career has been far busier, more varied and far more successful than those of the remaining Zeps and is thus a major obstacle to a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. Plant set out to filter some of his favourite songs by other people through the sensibilities and skills of his new band, and so the album is all covers.

The album was released in 2010, and then they hit the road, touring in both the United States and Europe for the best part of a year. In February 2011 they played in Nashville and the show was filmed for the Artist’s Den TV series.

Even if you have and like the CD, you want the DVD. The performances here are much stronger and more varied and the Band of Joy reveal their full spectrum of their skills.

Scott was mostly in the background on the CD, here he gets to show great all round skills, not just on guitar but on pedal steel guitar, mandolin and banjo, and his range as a vocalist is a key element in the band’s impressive vocal punch. He comes close to stealing the show, but doesn’t actively try to usurp the limelight. When he’s not taking a solo he’s sprinkling sonic fairy dust around with his backing vocals and the ornamentation in his playing. His tremendous versatility and his considerable skills give the band a broad range.

Plant’s is the name writ large for marketing reasons – for rock audiences at least – but he gives Miller, Scott and paramour Patty Griffin (all of them recording artists in their own right) a solo spot each and plays Harmonica behind Miller and serves as a backing vocalist to Griffin and Scott. In many ways it is a band effort rather than star singer plus backing band. Given that some of the Nashville audience and media might be more familiar with Scott, Miller and Griffin than they are with Plant this may be a pragmatic approach.

Apart from the solo spots the material is split about 50/50 between Plant’s solo career (mostly the album they were touring on) and the band that Plant used to be in. The album numbers are cranked up a notch in excitement and the arrangements are more expansive. The Led Zeppelin numbers are re-imagined by the Band of Joy and acquire a rootsy, even country feel at times. This is not too jarring because Zeppelin as a band were very concious of the roots of what they were doing, but here it’s more overt. “Rock ‘N Roll” is rendered as rockabilly with Byron House slapping away at an upright bass before Scott gets in his pedal steel solos. “Houses Of The Holy” is significantly countrified – Scott is on pedal steel again – before Plant and the band start cranking up the intensity with the vocals and then suddenly Scott and Miller jump onto and slightly modify Jimmy Page’s original guitar riff and the rhythm section turn up the “hard rock” control to match. Plant has a broad grin on his face – he knows just how good this band is and he’s clearly enjoying playing with them.

It is Plant who is responsible for the only notable blooper in the whole performance when he fluff his lines and timing towards the end of “Rock ‘No Roll”, a number he must have sung many times over the years. The band catch it, cover with an extra bar and then everybody’s back in sync again. Everywhere else the performances are near faultless without compromising the band’s power and the spark of their live performance.

Their cover of Richard Thompson’s “House Of Cards” beats the pants off of the original and shows their tightness and their range as they build it all the way up, drop down to just Scott’s mandolin and then crank that sucker all the way up again.

Guitar nerds will find their eyes taken by Miller’s arsenal of unusual guitars. No Stratocasters and Les Pauls for him. There’s a baritone Danelectro (which allows him to get into an interesting space between where the guitar and the bass would usually operate), a tiny Eko octave electric guitar, and various other oddities. His one nod to convention is the use of a 12-string Gibson acoustic on “Tangerine”. But whatever he’s playing he gets great tone and, more importantly, plays to great effect. His solos are excellent, sometimes simultaneously retro and bang up to date, and in the ensemble playing he and Scott combine forces well.

The band has all bases covered. They have deep roots but they can deliver the modern, they can play delicately or with muscular power, there are top notch individual solo skills, they are versatile, they play marvellously well as a unit and the harmony vocals are impressive.

Band of Joy? Plant’s clearly having a very good time of it playing with them, and you’ll have nearly as much fun watching this exciting and fabulously skilled band in action.

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