Concert Review: Robert Plant at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, July 31

Robert Plant and the Band of Joy
Bayfront Park Amphitheater, Miami
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Robert Plant is born again. Well, okay, perhaps not in the religious sense.... Although in Saturday night's spectacular showing, he and his magnificent Band of Joy did a fair amount of testifying via some gospel-tinged material. Rather, he's been reborn in the sense that the one-time rock god has descended from Olympus to purvey a style considerably more down to earth.

He's gone from wailing British blues and a hard rock torrent to a style sown from the American heartland, and he does so in the company of players that ensure authenticity. He previously scored cred and kudos in this arena through his partnership with bluegrass belle Alison Krauss and their Grammy-winning collaboration Raising Sand.

Now, Plant clearly shows the confidence to immerse himself entirely into a new venture drawn wholly from the heartland. Saturday night's performance in Miami at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater was ample demonstration of his ability to not only pull it off, but to claim it as his own.

Consequently, those members of the audience clad in their well-worn Led Zeppelin regalia might have had initial reason to be disappointed. Plant no longer stretches for those shrill high notes that created his signature sound at the helm of his old outfit. Instead, his voice has settled comfortably in a middle range. If anything, Plant's a better singer now than before, in that he's able to blend his voice towards whatever circumstance the material calls for.

So okay, there was no assuaging the faithful with "Stairway to Heaven," and thank heavens for that. However, the Zep fans can be assured that Plant hasn't forgotten them entirely. At least half a dozen standbys - including "Gallows Pole," "Thank You," the lovely "Tangerine" (a relative rarity from Led Zeppelin III) and the genuine holy grail, "Rock & Roll" - crept into the set, albeit rearranged with a sturdy country flavor aided and abetted by pedal steel and harmony.

Still, anyone who expected a replay of Zeppelin's greatest hits obviously missed the point entirely. The songs in this set, particularly those reprised from Raising Sand, and from Band of Joy's eponymous debut due in September, derive from a place down home, not one elevated on high.

The newer material included an especially expressive take on Richard Thompson's "House of Cards," a menacing "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," a back porch ramble called "Central Two-O-Nine" (which found Plant playing washboard, no less!), a retrained redo of Low's "Monkey," and a riveting cover of the late, great Townes Van Zandt's "Harm's Swift Way." They all suggested Plant's forthcoming album could be his best yet.

In addition, Plant and company briefly paid tribute to the rest of his solo catalog. "Tall Cool One" was as stirring as ever, and "I'm in the Mood" - unexpectedly incorporating a snippet of Fairport Convention's "Come All Ye" from their classic Liege and Lief - melded with the overall mood perfectly. Ditto, when towards the end of the set Plant announced, "Here's a folk song laden with sincerity," and launched into Zep's "Over the Hills and Far Away."

Of course, the main difference between then and now - or to borrow the title of an earlier opus, now and zen - is the fact that Plant's in the company of his best group of players since the heady days of Led Zep. Patty Griffin, a successful songstress in her own right, provides Plant with the vocal foil he previously found in Alison Krauss. Buddy Miller is probably the most astute and well-respected engineer of all things Americana these days. Indeed, his searing guitar fills add a depth and distinction that negates any nostalgic whimpering about the absence of Jimmy Page.

Bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovano prove an adept rhythm section, whether steering the proceedings towards all-out revelry or providing the subtle underbelly the mellower material calls for. And Darrell Scott.... Well, suffice it to say the guy is a multi-tasking marvel, a musical jack of all trades who represents the group's go-to musician, whether adding tasteful licks on guitar, mandolin, and banjo or providing the silken strains of pedal steel and lap steel guitars.

Miller, Scott, and Griffith all got their solo turns too of course. But when they blended their voices with Plant's in four part harmony, the results were - to paraphrase another title from Plant's solo canon - mellow nirvana. "The Band of Joy is very special to me," Plant told the audience early on. If nothing else, this concert was indicative of why that's so.

By the way, one would be remiss not to credit opener Bettye Lavette for setting the tone. She's a veteran R&B singer whose career has recently been rebooted thanks to a succession of three albums on the hip, young Anti- Records label. The still-spry 64-year-old is reveling in recent honors, including a performance at the Kennedy Center Honors and a recent Grammy nomination.

Onstage on Saturday, she recalled an earlier visit to Miami in the formative years of her now nearly 50-year career, but graciously thanked Robert Plant for "being the first of my contemporaries to do anything for me." Sassy and soulful, she maintained a lively stage presence imbued with old school grace. Among the highlights was a trio of entries from her most recent effort, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook - specifically, "George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," Ringo's own "It Don't Come Easy," and the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me." They offered emotionally wrought re-workings of those classics, but proved, like Plant, that everything old can be new - and remarkable - again.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Prior to Raising Sand, I found it inconceivable that Plant could make the shift in styles. With Band of Joy, he's quickly escalated up the ladder to become a crossover country master.

Random Detail: Band of Joy is a recycled moniker. It was actually the name of his pre-Zeppelin band with Sep drummer John Bonham.

By the Way: Regardless of its origins, Band of Joy is an apt banner. Indeed, Plant has never seems so blissful. Suffice it to say, the crowd felt the same way.

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