Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Robert Plant and Band of Joy in the Perfect Setting

The moment Robert Plant and Band of Joy appeared on stage at the Beacon Theatre on Saturday Night the air went electric with a charge that ran both ways. They hit the boards beaming and visibly jazzed for a night of playing great music while the audience rose to greet them in a spontaneous, all-at-once movement that seemed set off by a shockwave of ardor. In America’s favorite rock room, American roots music was about to be re-interpreted by the finest blues singing, gospel belting, country swinging and soul rendering artists of the day.

First up was a mightily rearranged “Black Dog”, inflected with mike stand flourishes and loose-limbed dancing, that left the audience enthralled and out of their seats throughout most of the evening.

When the rumble of “Down by the Sea” brought Robert Plant to the words, “When I get older, will you come down to the sea,” the crowd roared their hearty vows. Drummer Marco Giovino delivered a rolling beat for the song that moved seamlessly from the realm of Native American warrior dance to intricate tabla territory. Multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott coaxed sitar accents from his guitar, providing the first hint of his mastery over all things stringed that he would reveal in each song. (Later, switching between guitars, mandolin and banjo, he pulled Jimmy Page’s signature reverse echo effects from a pedal-steel.)

“Welcome to an unexpected, scintillating evening with Band of Joy,” said Mr. Plant, looking across the audience and around his circle of musician friends with genuine pleasure. Buddy Miller raised a wall of twang and fuzz tone, filigreed with Darrell Scott’s mandolin, for “Angel Dance”. Riding high on steady currents of appreciation from the crowd, Plant said, “I think we’ll be alright tonight, Patty,” before leading into a harmony duet with the astonishing Patty Griffin on “Please Read the Letter”. A cover of “Houses of the Holy”, refurbished into a stately country home that rocked nonetheless, was one of many evening highlights. “The great, superlative leader of the band, “Buddy “Hoochie Coochie” Miller,” is how the golden god segued from “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, where bass player Byron House added profound bass vocals to his bass lines, right into “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”. Miller’s solo on the song revealed him to be a fearless virtuoso.

The swagger of “Rich Woman” and the hunger of “Silver Rider” rose into the heavenlies upon Darrel Scott’s pure mountain voice in “Satisfied Mind”, a spine-tingler that generated an ovation. “House of Cards” and “Move Up” confirmed for the audience what Robert Plant and a legion of fans have already discovered: Patty Griffin can belt out and wail every song with grit, power and majesty.

And so it went for the rest of the night – Band of Joy moved with assurance between gospel, bluegrass and genre-bending selections from Robert Plant’s decades as a solo artist, to re-imagined covers of Los Lobos, Low and Led Zeppelin tunes before doubling back to venture even further into diverse musical landscapes. Such brilliant meandering made for a fascinating evening for all.

Band of Joy is exactly that – a circle of authentic artists who derive unabashed delight from each other’s music. Throughout the evening they played in a loose circle, grooving to each other’s improvisations and responding to each other’s subtlest cues. Band of Giants is another name that might have done them justice – each of the six artists is a standout – but then the chance to pay homage to a pre-Zeppelin era would have been missed.

Robert Plant hasn’t left behind Led Zeppelin – he’s bringing the influences that fueled that once-in-a-lifetime collaboration into the present moment and racing forward with them in exquisite company. Plant and Band of Joy are on a quest to reach deeper and stretch further into all musical territory – a journey no music lover will want to miss.