Monday, August 20, 2007

Robert Plant at 59: A look back, and a glimpse forward

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

On this day in 1948, Robert Anthony Plant was born in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England. Leaving his home in his teens, he promised his parents he would return to enter into accounting in the event that his desire to make a living off of singing would not be realized by his 20th birthday. What fulfilled that goal was his eventual calling to front a band featuring John Bonham, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. With the group that came to be known as Led Zeppelin, Plant's career choice was no longer in question, and he is still singing today as a result.

Now at age 59, he appears to be a much more toned down version of the golden god he was when his image was first displayed on LPs and posters in the bedrooms of nearly every hip teen-ager in the civilized world. While the Robert Plant of today may not be heaving as many televisions from hotel lofts or hitting as many high notes as he once did, the breadth of his voice and passion for music have perhaps never before been better realized than in recent years, mainly with his current band, the Strange Sensation.

The coming months are set to unleash a new chapter in Plant's long journey. On Oct. 23, Rounder Records is set to release a new album pairing him with bluegrass icon Alison Krauss. The label says this record will be "a revelation for the listener" that "spans the intersections of early urban blues, spacious West Texas country, and the unrealized potential of the folk-rock revolution."

Artists including Johnnie Ray, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Little Walter and, posthumously, Robert Johnson all made initial impressions on Plant's development as a student of music. He also imported psychedelic rock from America and incorporated the look and sounds into his own act before he ever performed outside of his home country.

Once he developed the means, Plant traveled great distances to establish kinship with likeminded musicians from across genres and borders. Most notably, he has done so by taking Jimmy Page in 1994 to rekindle some of Led Zeppelin's spirit alongside street musicians in Marrakesh, Morocco. On a return trip to the African continent in 2003, he brought his two Strange Sensation guitarists to the Sahara desert for a four-day music festival that showcased many of the most expressive performers from the region. Plant and accompanying musicians had been attending such festivals for years, and he is now adding his own unique piece to it.

His upcoming album with Krauss, called Raising Sand, approaches obscure songs by the Everly Brothers, Tom Waits and contemporary singer Sam Phillips, among others. The label tells us that this collaboration "defies genres in favor of a wide open brand of seismic soul music" and "uncovers popular music's elemental roots while sounding effortlessly timeless."

Plant's 59th birthday today reminds us that he was fortunate to have fallen into the scope of Jimmy Page back in 1968 to deliver a lifetime's worth of music that continues to confront standard classification while evoking a wide range of emotions in its beholders. May the fans be grateful today and always for Plant's enduring achievements. We all wish you a happy birthday, Robert!

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