Music has taken Robert Plant from “Kashmir” to “The Ocean” and “Over the Hills and Far Away,” up the “Stairway to Heaven” and through the “Houses of the Holy.”
But 30 years removed from active duty in Led Zeppelin, the British singer has found a fresh creative home in Nashville, where he made 2007’s Grammy Award-winning “Raising Sand” with Alison Krauss and returned to for its follow-up, the Grammy-nominated “Band of Joy.”
“I’ve got big ears, I suppose,” explains Plant, 62. “I just felt a kind of ... ‘rebirth’ is far too serious a term. It’s a different yet very vaguely familiar feeling within me that I can now just do anything at all and go and enjoy my dalliances with all kinds of music, which is a wonderfully pure place to be — especially at this point in my life.”
Plant has certainly done well by his new environs, physical and sonic. The No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 of “Raising Sand” was his highest chart showing ever post-Led Zeppelin, while the album was certified platinum and took home a total of six Grammys over two years, including Album of the Year in 2009. It was No. 2 on the Internet music service Rhapsody’s list of best country albums for the decade.
“Band of Joy,” meanwhile, debuted at No. 5 in September, the top chart bow for one of his own albums.
Plant felt so strongly about “Raising Sand” — “A spectacular revival of my spirit, in a way,” he calls it — that he even eschewed many reported, and lucrative, Led Zeppelin reunion offers after the group played a ballyhooed benefit concert in December 2007 at London’s O2 arena. Despite myriad rumors, however, he now claims that, “I don’t think anybody actually asked that question, to be perfectly frank, apart from the media. So here I am, just doing what I do.”
The road to “Band of Joy,” however, began not surprisingly with Krauss and attempts to make a follow-up to “Raising Sand.” “We got to talking about it and we got to sharing a bunch of ideas and we got to go into the studio and try some of them out,” Plant recalls.
“And it was particularly challenging to try and follow ‘Raising Sand,’ probably, so soon after we finished working on the project. Perhaps we didn’t give it enough space. We reached a point where we knew we’d have to hook up later on.”
But Plant did hold on to Buddy Miller — the guitarist, producer and songwriter whose credentials include Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Solomon Burke and more and who was part of the “Raising Sand” band — after the sessions with Krauss proved fallow. “Buddy ... is an avid, avid, avid collector without boundary,” Plant explains. “His musical appreciation is ... all over the place, rather like mine is.”
Plant took the Band of Joy name from a group he was in — along with the late Zep drummer John Bonham — during 1967-68 in England, and the wide range of styles they explored provided a stylistic template for the singer’s current concern.
“Really, it’s a state of mind for me,” says Plant, who still considers himself “just a vinyl junkie and a total music nerd” always in search of the rare and obscure. “I was kind of standing in the middle of all my adventures, sort of with my hands up in the air. I felt I could do more or less anything. I could sink and swim. I didn’t have to ask anybody anything. I could just be a little bit like when I was 17.”
Driven by a desire “to get a bit more trippy,” Plant and Miller populated “Band of Joy” mostly with covers, save for “Central Two-O-Nine,” which they wrote together, and a trio of traditionals — “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday,” “Satan Your Kingdom Music Come Down” and “Even This Shall Pass Away” — the duo arranged. Among their choices were Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” (the first single, with the group’s David Hidalgo and Louie Perez in the video), Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards,” the Kelly Brothers’ “I’m Falling in Love” and a pair of songs, “Monkey” and “Silver Rider,” by the Minnesota trio Low. The latter was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Solo Vocal Performance, while “Band of Joy” received a nod for Best Americana Album.
The Band of Joy that made “Band of Joy” was also crucial to the process, Plant says. “It felt young,” he says of working with Miller, guitarist Darrell Scott, bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino. “It felt like I didn’t know what was going to happen next, and it didn’t really matter. That was the great thing.”
And the addition of Patty Griffin only made that great thing better.
“Buddy had (produced) her ‘Downtown Church’ album, and I heard the way she was singing and I thought how that would work against some of the stuff we’re doing,” Plant explains. “She was there in a trice, like a rocket, and it was magnificent. It really just turned the record upside down.”
Plant hopes to keep Band of Joy a going concern, in fact, though he says the push is on to create more original material for the group’s next album rather than the covers that dominate “Band of Joy.”
“We’re talking. We have to write songs now,” Plant acknowledges. “It’s all very well celebrating other people’s songwriting, and I know there are artists who actually have an entire career doing that, whether it be Elvis (Presley) or (Frank) Sinatra or ... a lot of country artists who never write.
“But we’re gonna be heading that way (writing songs) soon. I have no idea how it will work out, and also it will be the first time I’ve ever written a song ... with the American psyche in full flight, so we’ll see. But I’d like to think we can keep this going and just make Joy where it’s appropriate.”
Robert Plant & the Band of Joy and the North Mississippi Allstars perform at 8 p.m. tonight at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University on the U-M campus, Ann Arbor. Tickets are $86.95, $65.95 and $49.30. Call 734-763-8587 or visit www.livenation.com.
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