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"It wouldn't be such a bad idea to play together from time to time"

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In theory the concert will be their last ever, but Plant again fueled rumours of further reunions with a comment to a Sunday newspaper. Page and Paul Jones both hinted at that possibility in a magazine interview last week.

"It wouldn't be such a bad idea to play together from time to time," he told the Sunday Times, although he then added: "I don't think I said that."

"No. No. No. Somebody else inside me was saying that ... We're not having any more of that. It was great, but I've got to go down the highway now," he added, while not explicitly ruling anything out.

Security tight as Led Zep fans get gig tickets

Robert Plant is a lovely bloke. We have several sources to back up this claim. First, there’s Alison Krauss, who spent two weeks in the studio with Plant making the extraordinary Raising Sand – The Sunday Times Album of the Year. “Oh, he’s amazing. He’s hilarious. He lights up a room,” she tells me, speaking on the phone from Nashville. Then there’s the pictorial evidence: look at the cover shots on Raising Sand, and every photograph the pair have been in, and all you’ll see is Krauss trying desperately not to laugh as Plant says . . . well, she won’t say what he was saying. Or we could turn to Popbitch. The internet newsletter best known for being rude about famous people has recently run several items marvelling at how nice and down-to-earth Plant is.

And as I meet Plant for a coffee in a northwest London restaurant, he does indeed light up the room. “He won’t talk about Led Zeppelin,” his PR has warned; but it’s impossible to believe that this amiable, chatty individual would be so rude as to let the words “no comment” pass his lips.

Plant has every reason to be in a good mood, of course. Tomorrow, he will sing with his old group, Led Zeppelin, at the O2 – the hottest ticket of the year, and indeed of the century so far. But this is not one of those reunions put together to salvage some dignity and money after a failed solo career. Plant’s solo career, always interesting, always adventurous, is enjoying a new peak of popularity with the commercial success of Raising Sand. In the unlikeliest of tie-ups – former rock god meets bluegrass star – Plant has found a new musical home. He doesn’t need to revisit old glories; he has new glories to enjoy.

The Led Zeppelin gig is a one-off event, as a tribute to their old record-company boss, Ahmet Ertegun. Clearly, there was a great deal of mutual respect between a band rooted in the blues and a record-company executive – he oversaw the careers of R&B and soul legends such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin – with a rare appreciation of musicianship. Only this, it is assumed, has persuaded Plant to agree to a reunion.

As we sit and drink coffee, the O2 concert is 10 days away, and Plant has other forthcoming gigs on his mind. “Tinariwen have very kindly asked me to come along with my baritone ukulele, which I put through a little delay pedal,” he says, enthusing about the Saharan blues-rock band. “Because the whole thing about West African music is the groove, I can sit in there and I can solo, because it’s not about virtuosity. I come from that era when virtuoso playing was what it was all about. But these are different days. It’s about feel, for me.”

Within the twists and turns, the hesitations and hedging of that short comment, we can already hear how hard it is for Plant to discuss the music he’s making now without saying something that might be taken amiss by his former bandmates, and how carefully he struggles to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

“It’s great to be able to do something other than actually sing,” Plant continues. “I play guitar like [the blues musician] Otis Rush, but I haven’t been allowed to do so until recently.” Did he play any guitar on Raising Sand? “No, just getting to grips with the content of the songs, and working out how to create a new style, was all-encompassing. We originally thought, ‘We’ll try four days, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll have ourselves a nice liquid lunch and go on our way.’ In 12 days, we did 14 songs, and they kind of rolled out – at such a pace, there was almost a feeling of disbelief about us.”

Plant and Krauss had met once before, when they duetted at a Leadbelly tribute concert. Krauss recalls arriving at the Armenian dance hall in Cleveland where they rehearsed. “I knew his music, I knew what he’d achieved, and I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what in the world he’s like?’” she says. “It was all dark in there, and, over in a corner, I see that hairdo. He was wearing glasses. He peered over his glasses at me and said, ‘Ah, there you are.’ ” Strangely, where Krauss was and where Plant was turned out to be – musically – the same place. Perhaps it’s not that strange; after all, Zep’s bassist, John Paul Jones, has devoted much of his recent career to playing bluegrass or producing bluegrass acts. There must be some common ground between the loud rock of the band who spawned heavy metal and this offshoot of country and folk music.

The man who found it was the producer T Bone Burnett. An influential, if largely background, figure in American roots music, Burnett’s career goes back to Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, but he is best known for producing the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, on both of which he worked with Krauss. His first role on Raising Sand was to select most of the songs. He sent them to Plant and Krauss with “a thesis on each song, with reference points ranging from Plato to Alec Guinness”, Plant says. Krauss was, she says, “fascinated by what T Bone sent us, but also intrigued as to how we were going to sing together”. She explains that her role at the Leadbelly tribute, singing a high harmony, well away from Plant’s voice – “with a part missing in between” – wouldn’t work across a whole album. “We had to get our voices closer together.” In fact, their voices gelled almost immediately. Please Read the Letter, one of the standout tracks on the album, was recorded on the very first day. It was while recording this song, Plant says, that he knew the project was going to work. He explains: “Sometimes you can get lost in your own vision of what a song is, then you read a review and you think, ‘Oh, was it that?’ I read one review of Please Read the Letter that said, ‘He let out two banshee yelps’, as if they didn’t belong, but those two banshee yelps formed the band, because I just go ‘Unh!’, then Jay [the drummer Jay Belle-rose] kicks in and changes things, and Alison does that pizzicato thing on the fiddle, and we’re off.” They were, I suggest, just waiting for you to be Robert Plant. “Yeah, and I was trying not to be.”

Krauss was clearly stunned by how completely Plant adapted to new styles – or, rather, old styles. “When you hear him on a traditional song such as Your Long Journey, and you think this man spellbound the world with how he sang and the way he looked, and there he is singing with absolutely no ego, just taking a supporting role – his love for this music is so obvious.”

She reveals that the pair will be touring in April. The tour is scheduled to start in America, at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, then come over to the UK. More than this, they are already thinking about a second album. “The fact that T Bone and Alison want to record some more songs in January is really worrying me,” says Plant, subtly edging into the subject of Led Zep, “because I’m going to need to rest my voice after the O2. We’re rehearsing like loonies. I woke up this morning and I couldn’t speak – but I never sang Kashmir as well as I did yesterday.”

You’ve still got it, then? “Well, I’ve got something. I don’t know what. Probably more Robert Mitchum than Tiny Tim. But when those two Capricorns go ‘Okay, all right’, then I guess I’ve done something good. Complimenting a Leo after all these years – why didn’t you tell me before?”

Sensing my ignorance, Plant launches into the astrological explanation of the Led Zeppelin setup. “We had the Gemini at the back, two Capricorns on either side, and the golden god in the middle, shining in all his leonine splendour in an open shirt,” he says, smiling broadly at his self-caricature. “Capricorns are pragmatic and studied . .. a little bit stubborn. They get on because they understand each other, but they always worry about me. They should be called Grin and Bear It, really, because I’m such an idiot.”

The internet is already alive with rumours that the one-off gig will turn into a tour – Ian Astbury of the Cult has even been quoted as saying that they will be the support act – but Plant sounds wary of any further commitment. “Having to live up to something is terribly serious,” he says with a sigh, adding that he has not always been happy with the way their legacy has been perceived, thanks to legions of lesser imitators. “What we thought was really quite original – the hammer of the gods and all that stuff – we didn’t realise the spores would fall in such a way. The whole idea of being on a cavalcade of merciless repetition is not what it’s all about,” Plant concludes, before adding wistfully: “It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to play together from time to time.”

So, here’s the real scoop: the most reluctant Zep member finally says that he’d like to play together from time to time. “I don’t think I said that,” Plant says, looking affronted. I point out that not only did he say it, he said it only a few seconds ago, and it’s on tape. “No, no, no. Somebody else inside me was saying that. Not the bloke from Wolverhampton, the bloke from the land of the ice and snow, the bloke with his shirt unbuttoned down to his waist – and he can shut up. We’re not having any more of that. It was great, but I’ve got to go down the highway now.”

Plant explains the sheer effort involved in escaping the shadow of what was indisputably the biggest group in the world. “I have pushed that rock up a hill since 1980. Every other record I’ve ever made – all of which I’m very proud of – it’s been impossible to get radio. I’ve always been the wrong flavour. Because Gone Gone Gone got elevated to the [radio airplay] Blist, people now know about this record. Sometimes I’m walking along, and I open my nostrils, take a deep breath and I think, ‘I got away, I did it.’ I’m amazed I had the energy to keep it going.

“My second mind, as the old blues guys used to say, tells me: stick with Alison. We’ve both got our other bands. She’s got Union Station; I’ve got Strange Sensation. And, because the vocal input came after I’d been working with Alison, there’s not a shriek in sight. All gone.”

The last shriek is tomorrow.

As Led Zeppelin return, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss talk about the unexpectedly heavenly union of their two voices.Mark Edwards.The musical marriage of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.entertainment.timesonline.co.uk

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