Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
London Wembley Arena
Thursday, May 22 2008
“Good evening” says Robert Plant, flinging back a mane of tangled hair from his face, early on in tonight’s extraordinary show. “And welcome to. . .” he goes on, and pauses. “Well, I don’t know what it is,” he says then with a smile that before it’s finished turns into a grin, and a big one at that, visible evidence of a man clearly enjoying what he’s doing, even if he can’t put a name to it. “But you’re welcome to it,” he adds, “whatever it is.”
I’m sure there are a lot of people who remain more than somewhat baffled by what Plant is currently up to – Jimmy Page, you imagine, principal among them – and can’t for the life of them understand why the singer would turn his back on what may have been a last opportunity for a reformed Led Zeppelin to sweep all before them, the world once more in thrall to their rampaging glory, the band making millions in the process.
For these people, Plant’s decision to defer a full-scale Zeppelin reunion tour in favour of taking on the road Raising Sand, the album of “dark, sexy Americana” he recorded in Nashville with bluegrass singer and fiddle player Alison Krauss, may seem wilfully perverse, the album and accompanying dates an indulgence of sorts, a superstar somehow slumming it, the whole thing, in their opinion, a self-flattering vanity project, Plant doing it for reasons they find unfathomable and therefore questionable, as if Raising Sand was no more than a preening vanity project, recorded on a superstar’s indulgent whim.
This is a point of view, of course, that dramatically underestimates the depth of Plant’s feelings towards the beautiful and eerie music he has created with Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett on Raising Sand, the way it has revitalised him, filled him with new energies and ambitions that have allowed him at last, after years of sometimes inconclusive solo meanderings, to step out of the shadows of Zeppelin’s ominously looming legacy, the past that is forever calling out to him and by which I’d hazard he feels nothing but confined, reined-in.
Watching him at Wembley, you could clearly see a man who has discovered, however belatedly, a musical universe in which he feels uniquely, if unexpectedly, at home – and you sense that what he’s doing now, which for him involves the charting of entirely new musical territories, is wholly more gratifying than, at 60, parading the stages of the world’s biggest venues as the rock god of yore, which you suspect is a role he no longer feels comfortable playing, in a circus in which he wants no more to perform, private planes, vast entourages and knee-bowing attendants not a part at all of his current reality.
With Plant and Krauss waiting in opposite wings, T Bone Burnett, dressed in a preacher’s long black coat, as if he’s on his way to a pulpit to deliver a sermon of apocalyptic content, leads out the superlative band he’s pit together. He’s joined by drummer Jay Bellerose, double bassist Denis Crouch, multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan, with Nashville guitar legend Buddy Miller, who I saw last as a member of Emmylou Harris’ touring band, replacing Marc Ribot, who played on Raising Sand.
The band in place, and locking quickly into the shimmering reverb groove of “Rich Woman”, Plant and Krauss make their entrance to huge cheers, standing shoulder to shoulder at separate microphones, the astonishing vocal chemistry they have discovered between them at once in evidence. There is an ease and grace to their work, an unforced natural playfulness that gives way when appropriate to a sombre gravity. The band, meanwhile, are simply sublime – their nearest sonic equivalent Dylan’s current touring band of virtuoso road warriors, whose collective excellence they serially rival.
I suspect for some, the music that follows over the next couple of hours, will have seemed rather too sedate. But the choreographed formality of the show’s presentation is cleverly judged, and its unhurried elegant stateliness, what they play often assumes a wonderful grandeur, at times seems positively regal.
Highlights from the Raising Sand album are many – including Krauss’s sublime reading of Gene Clark’s “Through The Morning, Through The Night”, Plant’s powerfully mesmerising “Please Read The Letter”, a riveting “Fortune Teller” and a tender, heartbreaking “Killing The Blues”.
There are versions, as you will have heard, of three Zeppelin songs – a banjo-led “Black Dog”, which is brilliantly transformed, the original’s rampant carnality replaced by something more subtly insidious and sexy, a dramatically executed “Battle Of Evermore”, with Krauss invoking the ghost of Sandy Denny, and, even better, a stunning reworking of “When The Levee Breaks”, which now echoes the similar dramatic eschatology of Dylan’s “High Water”.
Best of all, though, is the version of the uncompromisingly bleak “Nothing” – introduced by Plant as a “profound piece of pain by Townes Van Zandt”. When I interviewed him last year, just before raising Sand came out, Plant explained that originally he didn’t get this song, couldn’t make sense of it, its meaning elusive to him. A series of explanatory e-mails from T Bone helped him ‘get inside’ the song, as he put it, and now he inhabits it totally, gives authentic voice to its poetic desolation, Krauss’s fiddle and the torrential guitars of Burnett and Miller providing devastating back-up.
When it’s over, and a chilling hush settles, Plant stands centre stage, head for a moment bowed. He lifts it then, and stares out at the cheering crowd, allows himself just the flicker of a vindicated smile, a man in a place he wants to be rather than the place others wish he was, which is somewhere you suspect he will want to linger a while longer, this musical journey just beginning.