With a Nod to His Past, Plant Moves On Again

Robert Plant performing at the Saenger Theater in Mobile, Ala., on his tour for his new album “Band of Joy.”
 
LATE last year, in a Nashville recording studio, Robert Plant, the former Led Zeppelin frontman, had a revelation. He was working on a new solo record, a project he began after scrapping plans for a sequel to "Raising Sand," his 2007 album of duets with the country singer Alison Krauss that sold 2.5 million copies worldwide.

“I suddenly felt very free and liberated,” Mr. Plant said by telephone from his home in England near the Welsh border. “The moment was open ended, with a huge horizon, and that’s how I used to feel about music. This great weight fell away from me and I thought, ‘I could be 17 here.’ It took me back to how I felt when I was in the Band of Joy.”
Inspired by this emotion, and by the remarkable set of musicians he was working with (led by the guitarist and co-producer Buddy Miller and including the singer Patty Griffin), Mr. Plant decided to title this new album “Band of Joy,” after the group in which he and the drummer John Bonham played before the formation of Led Zeppelin in 1968. With a laugh, Mr. Plant, 62, described that band’s “wonderful, crazy, incendiary quality,” saying: “It was constantly imploding internally and externally. We were so frustrated and so hungry, but it was great.”
The creation of the “Band of Joy” album, which is being released Sept. 14 on Rounder Records, wasn’t quite so chaotic, though it did require a few twists and turns along the way.
(The band will perform at the Bowery Ballroom next Sunday.) After the unexpected success of “Raising Sand,” which won a 2009 Grammy as album of the year, Mr. Plant and Ms. Krauss tried to record a follow-up. This in itself was a bit of a surprise, since Mr. Plant’s solo career has seen him go to great lengths to avoid repeating himself, venturing down avenues like rockabilly, folk and Middle Eastern music.
“We cut quite a lot of stuff with Alison,” he said, “and we spent enough time to know that we just didn’t have the right material. We had such a great outing with ‘Raising Sand,’ it had such joy and humor and reverie, and we weren’t hitting from the same angle.”
After those sessions Mr. Plant called Mr. Miller, who had been in the “Raising Sand” touring band, and asked if he would assemble musicians for a solo project. “I actually spent a lot of time trying to talk him into finishing the record with Alison,” Mr. Miller said. “I thought there were some magical moments on there.”
What he heard from Mr. Plant, though, was that he wanted to start from scratch and try something more daring. “I spent the last three years ferreting around, looking for clues how to carry on, and amassing songs that are pretty deep,” Mr. Plant said.
He had gathered dozens of songs that he was interested in recording, ranging from indie rock to traditional spirituals. Mr. Miller, with the sense that he needed musicians who would “be able to travel where the music took them,” assembled a small band with the multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, the bassist Byron House and the drummer Marco Giovino.
“The musicianship of these guys is almost frightening,” Mr. Plant said. “Singing with them, I’m just sliding down the rigging with a knife in my teeth, trying to make off with a few experiences. Sometimes I think I should just be helping out in catering.”
Still, he thought something was missing, and he called Ms. Griffin, an acclaimed singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator with Mr. Miller. “He told me that he felt like he hadn’t finished the record yet, and that it needed some spice,” she said.
What he wanted, however, was something very specific and very different from the give-and-take dynamic he shared with Ms. Krauss. Ms. Griffin said her role was “more landscape-y, more like a cello or a flute.” Mr. Plant called her “the serene, almost nonplussed sidekick.”
Both Mr. Miller and Ms. Griffin described the sound of “Band of Joy” as darker than that of “Raising Sand.” With two songs from the catalog of the spare, intense Minnesota band Low, and songs by Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt alongside doo-wop and spiritual numbers, the disc is a testament to Mr. Plant’s eclectic tastes and to his expansive conception of American roots music.
On paper “Band of Joy” might sound a bit like a return to familiar territory, but the performances are consistently surprising. “You Can’t Buy My Love” is a finger-popping back-porch rocker, while “The Only Sound That Matters” offers an introspective meditation on love’s complications. Between the caliber of the musicians, the ambitious material, and Mr. Plant’s vocals (his signature banshee wail has modulated to a more weathered, expressive attack, which Mr. Miller compared to jazz singing), the album — true to its title — genuinely feels like a band effort.
Mr. Plant said that the feel of the recordings reminds him of “that other band,” as he sometimes refers to Led Zeppelin.
“A lot of this album is acoustic-based stuff along with adventurous rhythm,” he said. “It creates excitement with restraint, which pleases me no end, like we did back on ‘Led Zeppelin III.’ A song like ‘Gallows Pole’ was all about the dynamism, the way it unfolds and opens up and becomes more interesting rhythmically. When we made that record, we knew that we had to change the way people viewed that band or we would start becoming a bit of a parody.”


If Mr. Plant has always been so concerned with finding new directions, even back in the early Zeppelin days, why was he so committed to returning to Nashville after abandoning the second album with Ms. Krauss?
“I just haven’t had enough mountain music yet,” he said. “I don’t want to just go on some kind of clever musical voyage. I want to go places where I’m amazed. The South is still intoxicating for me, I’m still taking it all in.
“I don’t come from the land of the ice and snow,” he continued, quoting from ‘Immigrant Song,’ the thunderous opening track on “Led Zeppelin III,” “but I do come from overseas, and I feel like a strange cousin from across the water. I’m still a voyeur in America, and after all these years I still haven’t dug in beneath the epidermis.”

What Mr. Plant calls his “wanderlust” is presumably the reason he continues to resist a Led Zeppelin reunion — rumors of which have dogged the band since a triumphant one-off benefit show at the O2 Arena in London in 2007. The guitarist Jimmy Page and the bass player John Paul Jones have expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
“I don’t need to go anywhere I’ve been before,” Mr. Plant said. “I keep ducking and weaving. Every time I do something else, I have no idea if it’s going to work or where it’s going to take me. I do it for the right reasons and continue to change as vividly as I did in that other band. I couldn’t just go back to the mother lode and hit the same button every time.”
Mr. Plant does, however, express regret that Mr. Bonham, his mate from the original Band of Joy who died in 1980, as celebrated for his hard living as for his astonishing drumming, isn’t here to see the group’s new incarnation.
“I wish Bonzo was around now to dig it,” he said. “But he’d probably say that I’d gone too sedate too soon.”


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