At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday, April 17
A few months ago, shock-rock king Alice Cooper made headlines in the music press when he complained about Robert Plant refusing to get back with Led Zeppelin. “Jimmy Page wants to do it,” griped Cooper. “John Paul Jones wants to do it. And they got [John] Bonham’s son [Jason Bonham], who is a killer drummer. All they need is Robert Plant. But what is Robert Plant out there doing? Playing folk music! What is he doing?”
Well, Sunday night at the Queen E., Plant showed Vancouver just exactly what he is doing: making some damn fine Americana music with an incredibly talented group called the Band of Joy. Who needs a wizened, 62-year-old frontman going through the bombastic heavy-metal motions of a Led Zep reunion just so he’ll have an extra $50 million in the bank? Plant’s heart isn’t in it. But that doesn’t mean he can’t drench old Zep gems like “Black Dog” and “Houses of the Holy” in a rootsy, down-home vibe. If the Coop isn’t fine with that, he can shove it!
Anyone with concerns about the Plant show not being blues-rocking enough had those worries wiped away as soon as openers North Mississippi Allstars hit the stage. It was actually, as guitarist-vocalist Luther Dickinson noted, “the North Mississippi Duo”, because NMA bassist Chris Chew wasn’t there—it was just Dickinson and his brother Cody, who handled drums and one wild electric washboard. But the two of them came off with the raw ferocity of the White Stripes on a great night (and with a way better drummer), delivering Mississippi hill-country blues stompers and winning over the sold-out crowd from the first searing slide lick. They even offered up a killer version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”, the best Bob Dylan song as far as titles go.
Before Robert Plant’s cranky soundman flipped over the set list that was lying on his console to hide it from my view I got a pretty good look at it, and was surprised to see that it included several Led Zeppelin numbers, including “Black Dog”, “Gallows Pole”, “Houses of the Holy”, “Ramble On”, and “Rock and Roll”. The latter boogie tune never actually surfaced during the gig, which is just as well since there are some Bonzo drum bits that just shouldn’t be messed with.
Plant took the stage to a brief standing ovation and started right into “Black Dog”, giving it a southern-funk, Little Feat-style makeover. His singing sounded great and stayed that way throughout, but his much-loved vocals were under constant threat of being outdone by the stunning virtuosity of his band, which featured ace guitarist Buddy Miller as well as Darrell Scott, a formidable force on mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel, among other instruments. And Plant deserves all the credit in the world for being ego-less enough to have Grammy-winning vocalist Patty Griffin on his stage. He introduced her as “the best singer in the band”, and she lived up to that claim with her passionate take on the R&B nugget “Ocean of Tears”.
Plant’s set also included covers of songs by Los Lobos (“Angel Dance”), Richard and Linda Thompson (“House of Cards”), and Low (“Monkey”), all of which are included on his latest album, Band of Joy. But the highlight of the night was saved for his three-song encore, and no, it wasn’t Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole”. Neither was it the Grateful Dead’s gospel showcase, “We Bid You Goodnight”. It was Plant’s stirring version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way”, one of the Texas country-folk cult hero’s final demos. Miller’s baritone guitar put just the right touch of Steve Earle-type twang in there.
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