The Songs Should Have Remained the Same

Robert Plant is on tour with his old band. You know, the one before the Honey Drippers – The Band of Joy. I saw them Saturday night at the Beacon Theater. I re-discovered Plant a few years ago when I heard “Please Read the Letter”

Bantam Lake

Feelin' the country sound

on the sound system of a supermarket near Bantam Lake Connecticut while I was buying some supplies to camp out after a day of canoeing. Country isn’t usually my preferred form of music, but when I’m in outdoors mode, I’m more attuned to it than usual.

I had no idea it was Robert Plant and Allison Kraus until I googled the lyrics, and I enjoyed the song enough to buy the album. (the song actually originally appeared on Page/Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale)

When I heard that Plant had refused to tour with Page, Jones, and Bonham in 2008, my first reaction was annoyance. Who is this guy who thinks he’s too good for Led Zeppelin?  Believe it or not, I tend to be very selective about who I see in concert. I love music, but time spent at a concert is time I could spend with my wife and child, at the gym, exploring the outdoors, writing my novel, researching a conference, or making my own music.  Even socially, it’s a little unsatisfactory, since conversation is minimal.  But a Led Zeppelin tour, I would make the sacrifice for.

I eventually came around to Plant’s side, however. He was trying to move on as an artist, to build an adult career. As an adult myself, I appreciated the sentiment. When I was in graduate school in the 90s, my friend Tony invited me to see The Who perform Quadrophenia at the Spectrum. I was working on a paper due the next day at the time, but I decided that I wasn’t going to let a little thing like preparing for my career stand in the way of a good time.

Because I was shirking a responsibility to go to this concert, the question, “Aren’t I a little too old to blow off a grad school assignment to go see a rock concert?” was at the forefront of my mind (answer – no. I pulled an all nighter and handed in a paper for a respectable grade) But since the question was on my mind, I also sort of wondered, “Aren’t these guys a little too old to be playing the same old stuff – especially something so teen angst ridden as Quadrophenia?”

The show was phenomenal, of course. After the rock opera was over, Pete Townshend played an acoustic version of Won’t Get Fooled Again. I loved it. It seemed so right to me that he could perform the song that way. At his age, the lyrics seemed full of wisdom, rather than the disillusionment of the original. (The previous summer, I had had a similar impression watching Dylan sing The Times they Are A Changing)

Not that I ever outgrew loud, angst ridden music, but I was starting to enjoy something more at that point in my life. I had grown to appreciate something akin to wisdom and storytelling in a song. I understood that a guitarist needed to mix his skill with feeling, not volume, to be affective. Around that time, I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen where he said he first discovered Hank Williams when he was 25 and was profoundly influenced by his character-driven story telling ability. I was the same age, and had just discovered Bruce Springsteen for similar reasons. (I didn’t discover Hank for another 4 or 5 years).

So last weekend, I forgave Plant for depriving those of us who were entering middle age from the perfect mid-life crisis tour with Led Zeppelin because I supported his trying to mature, and I sincerely liked some of his newer stuff. I called my friend Josh – who I had gone with to see the Now and Zen tour 20 years earlier – and we got tickets.

The show was enjoyable enough, but I wish Plant had embraced the new music as much as I had. Now, I understand that he had to please a diverse and possibly tough crowd – I had demanded my Zeppelin fix back in the day too – but I wish he would have laid off of it. He played six Zeppelin songs, and that was just too much. He opened with a mellow, bluesy version of Black Dog.

Black Dog is a song which is probably best known for its awesomeness, but Plant started off his show playing it without the awesome part. The guitar and drums – not to mention his screeching vocals – were just missing. I think he would have been better off starting off with something completely original and appropriate for the new sound

The same could be said for the rockabilly version of Rock and Roll that he played during the encore. What good are those songs without those guitar parts? I still remember where I was the first time I heard Led Zeppelin IV (I was 13 years old, on a Barron’s Teen Tour on the way to Boston. The guy who eventually sold me my first guitar – a hot pink Ibanez Roadstar Series II – played it for me in his walkman. And it changed my world. My friend Jeff and I have a pact that we’re not going to let our kids hear Led Zeppelin until they’re five years old so we don’t deprive them of their ability to remember the first time they hear Zep)

In all fairness, Ramble On, Houses of the Holy and Gallow’s Pole all hit the spot.  The show was best when he let the other members of the band strut their stuff in the country blues format where they shone.  Guitarist Buddy Miller took the vocals on his own Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go, which also highlighted his guitar playing. Darrell Scott played mandolin, banjo, and pedal steel guitar (I’m a sucker for banjo and pedal steel), and lead the vocals for Satisfied Mind, which featured some beautiful harmonies from the whole crew.

The ensemble worked best when Plant treated it as a review and highlighted the band members’ own music.  But I wonder if the biggest take away from this show was to keep an eye on the other musicians – country star Patty Griffin sang and played guitar, too. I’d rather see them without paying the price of a former Led Zeppelin singer ticket and sit through the requisite gimmicky nostalgia pieces.  Hopefully, Plant will get the balance right for the Honeydrippers reunion.

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