So Robert Plant’s off the road from the Band of Joy, and he’s looking for another gig or two to occupy his time and maybe become his next permanent band. For now, all he wants is to keep the momentum going, so he’s just going around, ticking things off his to-do list. He’s got a few priorities in the music world.
To the disappointment of many, none of them is aimed at reuniting Led Zeppelin.
Well, why would he? It’s not like he needs the money! And he’s done that. Basically, he’s done that enough and he’s into all sorts of things. He’s always on a journey; he’s always exploring. He’s traveled constantly since the ’70s, and the part he really digs is “The Ocean.” Not the song, but who the song’s talking about: the people all over.
Robert Plant digs people. He digs them on every level, from every culture. He enjoys people. One level on which he connects is when they share a deep knowledge of a wide variety of musical genres, but especially of acts that cannot accurately be categorized. The same way no one-word label such as “rock” or “metal” could ever encompass Led Zeppelin. Not even “heavy.”
Plant’s connection with Jimmy Page was instant. During their first encounter solely for the purpose of discussing music, they both had a few ideas of the type of music they’d like to be playing. They both suggested folk. They both suggested Joan Baez. And their precision was right down to the very song: “Baby, I’m Gonna Leave You.” They both had the LP. Page immediately invited Plant to join Led Zeppelin.
Nowadays, whenever Robert Plant has a musical kinship with somebody, he often makes a promise to do something together. Just ask Bobby Gillespie, singer of Primal Scream. If you’re out one night and Robert tells you he’ll come by and record with you, there’s a good chance he’ll play harmonica for one of the tracks on your next album. Or he’ll sing with you, like he’s done for Scott Matthews, Afro Celt Sound System, and Buddy Miller.
Now, you can add to that list “Les Misérables” star Alfie Boe, 39, a top male operatic performer in musicals. It’s just been announced today, Sept. 26, that Robert Plant’s going to guest on Boe’s next album. They’ll do “Song to the Siren” by Tim Buckley, long a favorite tune of Plant’s. It happens to be something he’s performed live regularly in the 2000s with the Strange Sensation, since their recording of it for Plant’s album Dreamland.
He is also a guy who likes to put together new lineups. For a while following Led Zeppelin, Plant’s first few touring bands, roughly his studio bands, didn’t have names (unless they already existed, as was the case with the Acts of God or Chernobyl Poppies). But since the second coming of Page and Plant in the mid 1990s, his bands have had names. Sometimes, they’re co-billed, such as Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation, or Robert Plant and the Band of Joy.
At the same time, there’s also been another kind of band Robert Plant has put together. The other model for naming his band is just to drop his own name from it together and, instead, have one collective label. Honeydrippers started out this way. They played once as the Skinnydippers! Priory of Brion was this way. And last week, Crown Vic turned out to start off this way, too.
The new band features a quartet of Austin scene cats who are thrilled to be with Plant. Drummer Dony Wynn’s an unmistakable guy who’s played with Dr. John, Patti LaBelle, and, appropriately, Robert Palmer. Guitarist David Grissom is there, with bass guitarist Glenn Fukunaga, and keyboardist and accordion player Michael Ramos. Crown Vic is also songstress/backing guitarist Patty Griffin, who was always performing in her own right as a songstress in Texas.
Her last solo album, Downtown Church, features the production of Buddy Miller. He’s the one who brought her in to salvage a post-Alison Krauss, all-male jam lineup that just wasn’t quite working. They needed something, and Buddy came up with Patty Griffin, much to Plant’s liking. His delight with, and enamor of, her probably triggered the name! They collectively made the Band of Joy album and then devoted a solid 12-month period to touring.
Once their tour wound down and Plant was mostly commitment-free from the concert industry, he and Griffin found themselves naturally joined at the hip (groin). They assembled the Fukunaga-Griffin-Grissom-Plant-Ramos band for the appearance of “Patty Griffin and special guests” on opening night of the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love in West Texas, in a town called Marfa. And called it Crown Vic.
On Thursday, Sept. 22, their act appeared alongside those of Tift Merritt, Barbara Lynn. Nobody said so officially until the day of the show that Robert Plant was one of Patty Griffin’s special guests, but everybody in the area knew anyway. The open secret is another Robert Plant tradition, in the cases of the Honeydrippers off and on from 1981 to 1985, the Priory of Brion in 1999 and 2000, and back in the mid to late 1970s during those two long breaks in the career of Led Zeppelin (Melvyn Giganticus and the Turd Burglars, anyone?).
This new one, Crown Vic might be a continuing entity, as long as it can outlast the attempt at a follow-up to Raising Sand, with Alison Krauss. After they picked up every one of the six Grammy awards for which they received a nomination, their participation at each other’s side dwindled in February 2009. He kept tour guitarist Buddy Miller by his side, and Krauss went back to Union Station. Thus far, Plant and Krauss haven’t revived their working relationship.
A variety of new bands and types of lineups are one way Plant challenges himself musically, and from which he derives satisfaction that he’s constantly evolving and trying new things. Maybe his biggest lesson learned from performing with Krauss was the way he learned to listen to other voices and blend with them. In their case, it was harmonies. Between 1994 and 1996, he and Jimmy Page earned have the same experience of sharing stages with orchestras. Now, Plant appears regularly with ensembles and super-choirs.
Next, he’ll try his hand singing “Song to the Siren” alongside the operatic tenor Alfie Boe, in a live concert setting. Plant says of himself, “The evolution of my voice is like playing a guitar.The more you play guitar, the more dexterous you become, the more your fingers move faster and all that sort of thing. It’s the same with your voice. With Alison, I had to learn to sing harmonies, something I’d never done with Zeppelin. My voice has changed over the years and now I’m duetting with a tenor!” The extent to which they will perform together, likely only east of the Atlantic Ocean, has yet to be announced.
As evidenced by Thursday’s Crown Vic performance in Marfa, Texas, that new and proudly American live lineup can rock it out electric and have some good down-home fun, especially with the Cajun vibe provided by Michael Ramos on accordion. Sometimes, they go acoustic and Patty Griffin can play, too — maybe even mandolin.
Mandolins and acoustic: That particular combination of instruments, by the way, is one of the best elements of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, of which Crown Vic played almost half on Thursday. And as November marks the 40th anniversary of release, Led Zeppelin’s surviving members have every right to be proud of their fourth album — not only this year but every year.
And isn’t that exactly the advice Robert Plant bestowed when granting his blessing upon Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience? “I don’t know why you don’t do it whenever you feel like it, to be honest,” he said in a joint radio interview in May 2010, “because we all do whatever we want to do.”
As the Zep song “For Your Life” says, “You can do it if you wanna.” But if reuniting Led Zeppelin just doesn’t happen to be up Robert Plant’s alley, he doesn’t have to do it. He has a lot of things going on, by design, and giving his OK to a Led Zeppelin reunion — outside of the rare charity thing for Ahmet Ertegun — doesn’t seem like it’s going to be one.