Saturday, September 18, 2010

Into the Deep End: Robert Plant’s Band of Joy

Band of Joy, Robert Plant’s highly anticipated new album, drops you into the deep end: a record that combines the swamp of Louisiana with the Celtic Highlands of Scotland. Produced by Plant and the ever-versatile Buddy Miller, Band of Joy is probably the best combination of musical colours Plant has used yet, surrounding him like a woolen blanket.

Originally, Band of Joy was the name of Plant’s first serious rock band and they were only together for a couple of years from 1966 to 1968. He was just 18 years of age when he fronted the group along with John Bonham on drums. He took Bonham to Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones and formed Led Zeppelin: a band that musically re-imagined the blues with close attention to their English folk roots. Both Plant and Page were able to absorb many musical forms and adapt them to Led Zeppelin. This record widens the musical pallete to include sounds that Led Zeppelin dare not tread: gospel, soul and country-blues.

The allbum opens with a cover of Los Lobos’s “Angel Dance,” a song that sets the sonic and musical tone of the whole record: “Tomorrow will bring us a brand new day /We can run and play.” Clearly, Plant remains interested in venturing into new musical territory, but it is something that he’s done for many years. But the doors really swung open for him creatively when he recorded the sublime Raising Sand with Alison Krauss a few years ago. Band of Joy reminds me of that album, even though musically, it’s not like it at all. This time, Buddy Miller steps to the fore on guitar adding his often-heavy sounds like he does on the darker toned, “Monkey.” Patty Griffin’s participation raises the singing quality much like Alison Krauss, but her role supports Plant’s vocals making him sound better. This is particularly true on their cheerful rendition of “Harm’s Swift Way” written by Townes Van Zandt. Darrell Scott balances the band with the ever-present mandolin.

What I really like about this album are the subtle arrangements, particularly on two traditional songs, “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” These tracks place emphasis on the vocals with Plant up-front in the mix, supported by Griffin and Darrell Scott. These quietly spiritual tracks draw you in and offer great contrast to the more mystical numbers such as “Monkey.” So, over-all this is a balanced album with a lot of textures and vibrant musical colours. For Robert Plant, whose musical career has slowly and carefully evolved since 1966, Band of Joy blends the very best of his past with an eye towards a bright future.

- - John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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