Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: John Margaretten
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy :: 04.22.11 :: Greek Theatre :: Berkeley, CA
It’s absolutely flooring how bloody vital and different the music coming out of The Band of Joy is from what’s come before in Robert Plant’s storied career. Within minutes of the start of this sweeping performance at the Greek Theatre, one felt the muscle and confidence of this band in a sumptuous, tangible way, which suits music this saturated with hormones and thick, complex stories and feelings. See, it’s not just Sir Bob up there holding court, though he did look just too-right standing amongst towering columns, his leonine mane billowing in the cool spring breeze. Plant is joined by a group of musical lifers throwing their weight behind one of the classiest, coolest songbooks today. The collective life experience, professional range and obvious humility of the Band of Joy, their leader included, is, well, a total joy.
|Robert Plant by John Margaretten|
“We’re gonna have a rock show tonight, Berkeley!” growled Luther Dickinson as he and brother Cody Dickinson took the stage to begin proceedings as the North Mississippi Allstars Duo. For just two guys, they filled the cavernous space with lush, gnarly music dragged out to California from some great divide where gospel, gutbucket rock ‘n’ roll, greasy blues and grinning country mingle over jelly jars and tell each other tales of love affairs and the grave. Many of their newer tunes drawn from the band’s best album yet, Keys To The Kingdom (released February 1 on Song of the South) made a man want to get right – with the Lord, his fellow humans, what have you. But their testifying dropped well below the beltline for Cheap Trick-esque, hook heavy rock, too, with “Shake” reminding us that North Miss Allstars are a largely untapped resource for titty bars. Their lustiness is a major part of their charm, not to mention their blackly humorous streak exhibited by “New Orleans Walking Dead” at the Greek. As a duo, there sound is more brittle and a touch less warm, but what it lacks in those regards it more than makes up in rawness and directness. With Cody looking like a CBGB’s regular back in the day and Luther grinning wicked up front, mangling guitars and unturned cigar boxes, the Duo managed to show off a lot of sides in just 45 minutes, dipping into Dylan for a dizzying version of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile” and exiting on a raggedly lovely “Amazing Grace.”
The intermission music, which included chestnuts like Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” and Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” spoke to the deep catalogue jukebox in Plant’s head, something the carefully chosen setlists he’s been doing on this tour reflect. The roar when he and the band emerged was expected but still felt appropriate. He’s one of our last oversized rock stars from the golden 1970s, and moreover, he’s making NEW music that shows a keen awareness of what’s happening today, thus avoiding the past-rehashing that so many of his peers fall victim to. By sidestepping his old companions and the safety of his established hits, Plant has opened up new vistas for himself.
|Band of Joy by John Margaretten|
Joining forces with bandleader-guitarist Buddy Miller, chief harmony foil and multi-instrumentalist Patty Griffin, Nashville string wizard Darrell Scott and the thunderously groovy rhythm team Byron House (bass) and Marco Giovino (drums, percussion) is the best move Plant has made in decades. Oh, he had some very fine moments with Strange Sensations backing him, but this is a BAND and not a veteran singer and some other folks onstage. This isn’t a dig at the many excellent players Plant has worked with over the years, but by the end of the radically reworked “Black Dog” opener it was apparent that this sextet has chemistry to spare; a bubbling under power that made the music feel deliciously alive at the Greek, and as the man himself pointed out later, “trippier as the night goes on.”
While the setlists are sticking to a pretty fixed formula, one gets the sense that the songs are handled a bit different each time out. Nothing at the Greek struck one as formulaic, and the mix of lead voices kept things surprising. Plant passed the spotlight to his mates several times, standing at the back contributing backing vocals while Miller knocked the battered spirit out of his own “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” Scott raised the hair on one’s neck with his lead vocal on the oft-covered-but-rarely-so-well “A Satisfied Mind,” and Griffin injected nasty blues oomph into “Ocean of Tears.” Often, the mix of voices was the focus, Plant surrounded for perhaps the first time in his career by collaborators who can give as good as they get on the mic. Yes, he’s still “The Man,” so to speak, but he’s also a real man by not insisting the music and attention constantly focus on himself.
|Band of Joy by John Margaretten|
Like most of Plant’s earlier music, the emphasis is on guitars, but he’s never ridden a six-string python this subterranean or comfortable in its sexiness. It suits his less mobile pelvic thrust these days, grinding where before he seemed drawn to pure rutting (yeah, I’m looking at you Mr. Page). There’s enough Zeppelin sprinkled throughout the set to keep those who came for a familiar fix happy, but for my tastes it’s still evolving fare like Low’s “Monkey,” the patient, hypnotic “Please Read The Letter” (a far cry from its Walking Into Clarksdale original) and traditional “Satan You’re Kingdom Must Come Down” where the greatest mojo currently lies. Of the Zep numbers, “Tangerine” was the sweetest and most like the original, “Houses of the Holy” the most interesting, and “Gallows Pole” the best return to crossroads roots.
In no small way, the sure hand and leering strength of this band felt a bit like being ravished with one’s clothes on, God and the Devil looking down from the ramparts as folks swam through the pheromones searching for the trail that leads to that ol’ misty mountain, ready to hop and sway with a master and his equally masterful company. With Plant, nothing seems written in small letters. His is a bold, capital kind of expression, and amazingly he’s learned a new dialect after all these years. He remarked early in the show, “Welcome to the inaugural tour of the Band of Joy,” punching the word “inaugural” as if to indicate there’s more to come. After the Greek, one can only smile to dream of what lies ahead.
Black Dog, Down To The Sea, Angel Dance, Black Country Woman, House of Cards, Monkey, Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go, Tangerine, A Satisfied Mind, Satan You’re Kingdom Must Come Down, Ocean of Tears, In The Mood, Please Read The Letter, Houses of the Holy, Ramble On
Encore: She Has Funny Cars, Gallows Pole, And We Bid You Goodnight
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