Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Americanization of Robert Plant

It's not like Robert Plant and that former band he played with haven't sampled American classic songs before.  Plant sang a stunning version of When the Levee Breaks on Led Zeppelin IV, a song first sung by Memphis Minnie in 1929.  Like so many of the British bands, Led Zep loved sampling American blues, twisting the music and the lyrics into their own rock ballads.

Led Zeppelin first came to the United States in 1968.  Their first major show was that Christmas, backing Spirit at the Denver Auditorium.  They were unbilled.  This became the snake that bit them earlier this year, when allegations of plagiarism surfaced in regard to the opening guitar melody on Stairway to Heaven being lifted from Randy California's Taurus.  This was apparently an attempt to block the release of the deluxe remastered set of Led Zeppelin IV, until Randy's family got the long overdue royalties they felt they deserved for the song.  Randy had never pressed the case himself before his death in 1997, and the remastered set came out as planned.

You can't help but take a guitar lick here or a refrain there, but one would be pretty hard pressed to think Stairway to Heaven sounds anything like Taurus.  I think much of this fuss probably arose from the stunning rendition of the song by Ann Wilson at a Kennedy Center Honors tribute to the British band, with Nancy Wilson doing the contentious melody on acoustic guitar.  Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham is on drums.

This tribute more or less capped Plant's time in America.  It started with a surprising collaborative with Allison Krauss in 2007, where the two sang a beautiful collection of bluegrass songs on Raising Sand.   T-Bone Burnett, who had previously done the monumental soundtrack Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, produced this album, which went even further to bring bluegrass back into the mainstream of music.

Plant had long drawn from Celtic and British folk music, so it wasn't as big a stretch as many would think.  He was steeped in Celtic folk music at the time he penned Stairway to Heaven.  Bluegrass music may be considered Americana, but it more than likely made its way over from the British Isles and was transformed over the decades into its own unique sound.  Raising Sand is less traditional but no less pungent in its sound.

The ageless songster didn't stop there.  In 2010 Band of Joy grew out of his relationship with Patty Griffin, a more rootsy singer than Krauss.  This was a crossover album that played on both American and British folk themes, underscored by an all-star band that harked back to his original band in 1966, which had previously included John Bonham.  

He and Griffin were living together in Austin for some time.  Griffin said that it was Plant who initiated the project, but that it was Buddy Miller's staggering collection of Americana music from which they drew their songs. There are some interesting contemporary pieces from The Great Destroyer, an album by Low, and a song by Los Lobos.  Plant and Griffin took this show on the road, even touring Europe in 2011.  Robert Plant looked and sounded in his element.

Plant also plugs young talent like the North Mississippi Allstars, who were touring with his Band of Joy in 2011.  He even did a cameo on the band's 2013 album, World Boogie is Coming.  He also plans on joining Jack White for at least one song on an upcoming album.

Inevitably the questions circle back to a Led Zeppelin reunion, especially in the wake of the recent re-issue of their first four albums on disc and vinyl.  However, Plant seems to view his Zeppelin days in the past, even if he often pulls a song or two up in his concerts.   It also seems that his time in America has drawn to a close, as he has gone back to England to tour with his Sensational Space Shifters on his new album, Lullaby and ...  The Ceaseless Roar, although he offers a new version of Little Maggie, which he said he had tried before and failed.  Sounds very good this time around, especially with the African one-string violin.

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