“It’s nice to see so many people who are still able to stand up,” joked Robert Plant. Indeed, the crowd consisted of many of his peers (Plant is 62), but also their kids and probably grandkids as well.
Plant received a standing ovation just for walking onto the stage at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (and, really, for pretty much everything else he did during the show). While preliminary applause might be overly-optimistic for many artists, the legendary Led Zeppelin front man truly warranted it.
Plant was in Asheville two-and-a-half years ago, touring with Alison Krauss in support of their joint album, Raising Sand. That show took place in the Civic Center; last night’s performance — in support of Plant’s new project, Band of Joy — took place in the more intimate (and better sounding) Thomas Wolfe.
Band Of Joy is both the name of the album and Plant’s touring group. The name comes from a 1960s English rock band that produced two Zeppelin musicians — Plant and late drummer John Bonham. The 2011 iteration is a super group with Nashville rebel Buddy Miller on guitar, Americana multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin adding lead and backing vocals, bassist Byron House and Marco Giovin on percussion.
The band opened with “Down to the Sea” from Plant’s 1993 solo album Fate of Nations. Scott played a pretty, Eastern-tinged acoustic guitar solo followed by Miller on a searing electric guitar solo studded with wah pedal. But the second song, Plant was swinging his mic stand and he belted out “Angel Dance,” a Los Lobos cover from Joy. Though Plant didn’t push his voice into anything near Zeppelin territory (and who could blame him?) until the end of the show, his vocal was strong (including the trademark “Ooh yeah!”) and Griffin (whose range is similar to Plant’s tenor) often doubled the lyrics for richness.
“Welcome to another chaotic kaleidoscope of color with the eternal band of joy,” Plant greeted the audience at one point. (It was one of the few full sentences he managed to get out — most times that he tried to speak, shouts of “We love you!” and “Asheville” from the crowd seemed to overwhelm him and he just abandoned his thought and launched into the next song.) There was a certain sense of mysticism to the evening, from the blending of/battle between acoustic and electric instrumentation to the many gospel tunes covered over the course of the evening.
Griffin’s voice proved especially pitch-perfect for traditional spirituals, from a medley including “Oh! What a Beautiful City” and “Wade in the Water.” House played stand-up bass, the entire band balanced perfectly between tight musicianship and a relaxed, sinuous style. That, and Miller’s guitar made gospel downright dirty. In a good way.
Underscoring his band’s star prowess, Plant willingly took a backseat while Miller, Scott and Griffin each took the lead on a song. Plant accompanied on background vocals and blistering harmonica.
Highlights from the evening were Plant’s reworked Zeppelin songs — “Tangerine,” “Houses of the Holy” (with Scott on pedal steel, lending a California Country feel), “Ramble On” (with Scott on octave mandolin) and “Rock and Roll” (in which the audience sang the “Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time” part of the chorus).
“Gallows Pole,” the last song before the encore, was an especially searing number. It started with Scott on banjo and a six-part vocal harmony, building slowly with stand up bass and booming drums. The coiled energy of the song reached its apex with Miller’s distorted guitar and thick, tranc-y, spooky rhythms.
Encores included a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way” and a gorgeous, a cappella rendition of “I Bid You Goodnight” — a popular closer of The Grateful Dead.
From start to finish it was a spectacular show, with Plant in fine form and aging gracefully. His new material is fresh and interesting, his classics are tastefully recreated and as relevant as ever, and his voice — if not the astonishing instrument of 40 years ago — has certainly stood the test of time.