Robert Plant and the Band of Joy get raw and rootsy in Vancouver

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      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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      Bruce Morgen

      Apr 18, 2011 at 1:57pm

      Unless something's changed about the BOJ's long-standing arrangement, Miller doesn't play his baritone guitar on "Harm's Swift Way" -- he's been using a vintage Harmony hollow-bodied electric (tuned a half-step high) for that particular "twang" effect.


      Apr 18, 2011 at 3:46pm

      Alice Cooper would keep his mouth shut if he saw see Band of Joy. Why travel with 20 semi-trucks around the stadiums of the world when you can quickly roll into (and out of town) with one truck, two buses and six super-talented musicians? Vancouver show was probably one of the best for 2011... maybe #1, we'll see. What a treat to see RB in very fine form with such amazing musicians.. Sorry Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones... My preference is for exactly what we were treated to last night. Pure musical perfection.

      jhane ball

      Apr 18, 2011 at 6:16pm

      Loved the show, definitely one of the best. And while Robert isn't the slinky man in the tight velvet jeans I saw way back in the 70's, he still has an amazing presence and a wicked sense of humour. The whole evening including the North Mississippi brothers who were up first was all about mega musical talent, with no ego making music for the pure joy of it.


      Apr 19, 2011 at 12:26pm

      I wish I could have been there. I too believe Plant is just getting better and better. Mighty Rearranger album is amazing, then Raising Sand? Wow! And the inclusion of "Houses of the Holy" in the set list?? Check out the lyrics on that old LZ staple and you'll find a fully modern critique of corrupt churchianity. Thanks GS for a great review too.


      Apr 19, 2011 at 8:19pm

      I love Alice Cooper, but on this issue he needs to just shut up. Everything I have ever read about the "glory" days of LZ pretty much paints Jimmy Page as a major ego and a**hole. Who would want hang out with him?? I haven't seen Ban of Joy, but I know Buddy Miller rocks. Judging from the sense of satisfaction Robert Plant seems to get from this band, they seem aptly titled. We all need some Joy in our lives.


      Apr 19, 2011 at 10:20pm

      Re Alice Cooper and Robert Plant et al, I caught a bit of Alice's radio show recently when he discussed the Led Zep non-reunion and clearly took Plant's side - why bother reviving something old when you've got something new going on that is really really good too - so maybe Alice has changed his tune.
      Also, the VanSun review mentioned that he did a LZ song called "Down to the Sea" but there was no such thing - she probably meant "Down by the Seaside" which is a ballad-y song that would fit well in BoJ style.
      Has anyone else noticed that there is a lot of Bible-based spirituality in Plant's songs and song selections? Like "Angel Dance" and "House of Cards" and many many more all the way back to "Stairway . . . ".