photographs by Gregg Delman
Thanks to a fierce commitment to innovation, Robert Plant is as relevant in music today as he was when he first came on the scene 40 years ago with a little band called Led Zeppelin.
Robert Plant may be accustomed to playing the world’s biggest stadiums, but the prospect of taking center stage at London’s Buckingham Palace proved a fraught experience. On July 10, 2009, the Led Zeppelin singer nervously joined a line of dignitaries inside the palace’s ballroom. As a crowd in the gallery looked on, he walked toward a throne dais where Prince Charles was presiding over an investiture ceremony. Unusually, Plant was wearing a suit and tie. His fountain of golden curls — still the most famous hair in music (apologies to Justin Bieber) — was tied back in a regal bun. The occasion: Plant was to be appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Plant stepped toward the prince and his two aides to receive the award for his services to music. “By the time I got to Charles, I could see it was like a kind of Louisiana two-step,” Plant jokes. “One person came forward and gave him the gong, and another guy came forward and leaned in his left ear and said, ‘This guy was once immune to penicillin. He has had a ridiculous life. He has six General Certificates of Education. And he’s had far too much good luck.’ And then Charles congratulates you, and you think, ‘I’ve sold out!’ ”
Few people would dare accuse Plant of selling out. If anything, his forward-looking musical ethos doesn’t include much room for leaning on past glories, wallowing in nostalgia or making primarily commercial moves. Who else would turn down a Led Zeppelin reunion tour despite a financial offer that would make even Warren Buffett’s accountants gasp? Then again, the 62-year-old isn’t like other rockers of his generation. He’s motivated by an inner gyroscopic motion to perpetually develop as an artist.
“He’s not comfortable with the past,” says Francis Dunnery, a friend who played guitar in Plant’s backing band in the early 1990s. “He’s always looking to the future and new perspectives and new adventures and new things that haven’t been done or been tried.”
For Plant, those new adventures included trying his hand at just about every kind of music there is. In 2007, the singer who practically invented heavy metal teamed with bluegrass star Alison Krauss for the roots record Raising Sand. It was, perhaps, the most unexpected musical collaboration since Ozzy Osbourne’s duet with Miss Piggy. But Plant and Krauss sold three million albums worldwide and won five Grammys — including one for Album of the Year.
As a result, Plant’s latest album, September’s Band of Joy
, arrived during one of the most high-profile periods of his storied career. But Band of Joy
is no Raising Sand II
(though Plant and Krauss will likely reconvene sometime in the future). It’s an Americana record that combines the yin and yang of electric and acoustic guitars with a fresh vocal direction.
“I want to bathe in a vocal world,” Plant says. “I had experienced it with Alison — working up harmonies and sharing a harmonic interplay. I wanted to take [my music] into another place again.”
That’s why, when planning his follow-up, Plant called Buddy Miller, who had played guitar on the Raising Sand tour, who, in turn, recruited singer-songwriter solo stars Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott. The collective group, which also goes by the name Band of Joy, is rounded out by Marco Giovino on drums and Byron House on bass. Crucially, every member of the band can sing.
Robert Plant in 1973
photographs by Gregg Delman
The new album is a covers-heavy one that explores a number of singing traditions. During the traditional “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” hushed spiritual harmonies unite as an aural exorcism. “I’m Falling in Love Again,” an old Kelly Brothers B side, sways to the gentle rhythm of barbershop harmonies. And a rocking cover version of Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards” utilizes Arcade Fire–like massed voices for the chorus.
“In a lot of bands you just get voices that can harmonize, but here you’ve got voices that interweave and have such strong personalities as vocal parts,” Plant says. “It’s not just about fitting in.”
Griffin is a key player throughout. At times, her voice lingers behind Plant’s like a vapor trail; at others, she sings in tandem with the frontman. “She’s a sensual singer and impish, too, which I really like,” Plant enthuses.
Still, there’s never any mistaking whom the lead vocalist is. True, the singer no longer reaches the Himalayan vocal peaks he conquered as a young man, but he still has the lung control of a pearl diver and plenty of gale-force power.
“You couldn’t plug any other voice into the record and have it be a good record,” says Miller, whose 2009 album, Written in Chalk, a collaboration with his wife, Julie, featured a guest vocal by Plant. “He pulls from all the different influences he’s been around. If he were a guitar player [too], he’d be scary!”