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Robert Plant and Band of Joy: Rock Raised to Revelation

Posted in: General,Reviews by Tom Beaudoin on February 2, 2011

On Sunday night at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, I saw Robert Plant, former Led Zeppelin frontman, leading his new group Band of Joy. After recently being blown away by the worldly rock holiness of Mother’s Finest a few weeks ago, I did not expect to turn right around and see a show that was as stratospheric in its musical maturity, singular creativity, and meditative relentless angelic hostage-taking heartbreaking raids on a beyond beyond all distinction. But this is, at least in my hearing, and judging from the in-show and post-show responses, what Plant and his extraordinary collection of American musicians (including Patty Griffin on backup vocals and the occasional lead) let be accomplished through them on Sunday night.


Plant has spent the last decade of his career showing why the old conversation about whether rock is music primarily for youth is only askable when one has held on too tightly to rock as a fixed star. Plant, now 62 years old, has been too busy chasing down the spiritual possibilities of rock that come from rediscovering classic early forms and letting them speak anew through the spiritual gifts that are his rockish center: that voice (wailing, moaning, yelping), that compositional sensibility (always somewhere between the English countryside, North Africa, and Memphis, Tennessee), and that trust in the music that is his characteristic slow-burning abandon in performance. In other words, his last several albums seem to say: here are the classic sounds of the rock tradition, and here is my legitimate strangeness, and now here comes music.

Recognition of the power of this approach is why the audience consisted of

fans from their 20s through their 60s for Plant and the Band of Joy in a set that showcased songs from their new album as well as some reworked Zeppelin tunes. Plant seems most interested in exploring early rock: gospel, country, mountain music, blues, although there was also no shortage of distortion, volume, and recurring reach for new terrain.

In the opening bars of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” there was Plant in the semi-darkness near Griffin, intoning the words of the title, standing but slightly bent, legs crossed one in front of the other, right shoulder cocking forth and back, eyes closed, mike stand across the front of his body, and in this moment something seemed terribly true about where this music was coming from. Fan reviews online confirm the power of this song live and on the new album.

Which raises the interesting question: what does one make of Plant singing so many songs that reference Jesus? There are quite a few in the set. To me, it felt like being witness to an “interreligious theology,” like the mashup of Buddhism and Christianity, for example, of theologian Paul Knitter’s recent work. There was a new kind of religious possibility coming through. (And not untimely: in a recent article, theologian Paul Crowley identifies a commitment to interreligious theology as a characteristic of a new generation of theology students.) Only here, one had Plant’s rock culture crossing the Christian culture represented in the country-gospel tunes he reinterpreted.

During one of many new versions of Zeppelin tunes, Plant sang the chorus of “Ramble On” by shortening the chorus so that only its imperatives were left, and they sounded to me like nothing so much as commandments, or better, spiritual exercises from and for the divinity drawn down in the music. The chorus became:

“Ramble on

Sing my song

On my way

Ramble on”

Walking around after the show, I thought: look at the strange and new erotic animal Plant has become. He seems to have managed to refuse any number of predictable identifications that trap both rockish and theologically-minded people of an even younger age. I marvel at that to which this man has said yes. As he said at the beginning of the show, “Welcome to another evening on the edge of not knowing.”

Music critic Jon Pareles has a remarkably strong review of the show in the New York Times. He writes that Plant plays “as if twanging and stomping were the route to revelation. The concert had nothing to do with period style and everything to do with spirit.” And: “When Led Zeppelin was in full cry, it hinted at realms of ecstasy and madness just past the edge of the music. Band of Joy, with very different musical foundations, can do the same thing.”

Tom Beaudoin

Ardsley, New York

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