“This,” says Robert Plant, gesturing round the former church that he’s chosen as the venue for tonight’s gig, “used be a house of the holy, now it’s obsolete. But it’s available for wedding receptions…”
It’s funny the way Plant puts a slight tremble in his voice when he says “house of the holy”, the only reference he makes all night to his other band. Zepwatchers might also chose to read plenty into Plant’s use of “obsolete”, especially after his comment in The Independent last week – “I feel so far away from heavy rock” – further reiterated his position that more Zeppelin activity is about as likely as a Beatles reunion.
But, in truth, Plant doesn’t really need Zeppelin any more. It’s a rare – and brave – thing to find a musician of Plant’s stature stepping away almost completely from the band that made his reputation. But with the Raising Sand and now Band Of Joy albums, Plant has clearly discovered new, equally fruitful pursuits.
And certainly, he cuts a very relaxed figure, dressed in a long sleeved black shirt and blue jeans, running the Band Of Joy – singer Patty Griffin, guitarists Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino – through a seven song set. It’s interesting how comfortable Plant seems playing to a 200-strong crowd (this is a secret gig, the audience made up mostly of competition winners, and one star spot: Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
In many ways, Plant’s a conspicuously unassuming presence. Consider the Lear jets, the Hyatts, the life well lived – tonight, we find him supping from a mug of tea or strumming a washboard. He does some funny dance moves – nothing more than little shuffles, really – that seem strangely bashful. The only rock star move you can spot is how he holds his microphone, with the stand slightly behind his right leg as he leans forward with it: the same stance he used in Zep. But for all Plant’s Deuchars-drinking, Wolves-supporting, down-home persona, he is a fantastically engaging performer. As an interpreter of other musician’s material – tonight there’s songs by Low, Townes Van Zandt and Richard Thompson – he appears tremendously sympathetic. His voice is warm and honeyed, only really unleashing the Valhalla howl as “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday” reaches its climax.
If there is one person here tonight who does look the part, it’s Buddy Miller, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter cast here as the Band Of Joy’s musical director. Wearing a red velvet jacket and a with a battered brown hat pulled down tightly over his grey hair, grizzled to an inch of his life, he appears somewhere between Neil Young and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who, with a touch of Worzel Gummidge thrown in. He does things with his guitar during set opener “Monkey” that almost out-Shields Kevin Shields. Elsewhere, Patty Griffin is a game foil for Plant, especially trading verses with him and Darrell Scott on the a capella introduction to “I Bid You Goodnight”. There’s a sense of democracy apparent here – and it reinforces the notion than this is a real band, not simply Plant with a bunch of hired hands along for the ride.
It’s over, really, too soon.
Robert Plant and the Band Of Joy set list:
House Of Cards
Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
I Bid You Goodnight
The Robert Plant & the Band Of Joy European tour begins tonight at the Forum, London.