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Plant draws inspiration from musical roots

September 13, 2010

Robert Plant- Band of Joy

Robert_Plant-200x0.jpg Robert Plant ... ‘‘I know exactly which buttons to press.’’

Thirty years after his Led Zeppelin days, a rock legend is having more fun than ever, writes Jordan Levin.

It's hard to believe, but Robert Plant has been a solo artist for much longer than he was the lead singer and strutting rock'n'roll god of Led Zeppelin.

Those trips for millions of fans up that Stairway to Heaven lasted from 1968 to 1980. In the 30 years since, Plant, now a grizzled and bemused 61, has found new adventures and a new identity - and a path to musical heaven - in American blues, folk and roots music, most recently with his tour and album Band of Joy. But he remains patient with those confused by the contrast between his towering historical image and musical present.

''That's all right. It's been a great run,'' Plant says. ''If we can't have fun now, the game's over, isn't it?''Touring with Led Zeppelin 40 years ago, Plant had some fun spraying fire extinguisher foam under the door of the hotel room of the sleeping guitarist Jimmy Page. Such memories can make touring ''a bit like being in a time tunnel'', Plant muses.

But he has looked for mellower forms of enjoyment since Led Zeppelin split, blown apart after the drummer John Bonham fell asleep drunk and suffocated on his vomit.

These days Plant regards his reign atop the rock pantheon with a cynical eye. ''I know exactly which buttons to press to make all that come back. Sometimes I get the old metal polish out and polish up bits of gold. But not often.''

He does not need to indulge in nostalgia.

''I'm singing better now than I have in a lifetime. And I'm not standing on top of a barrel hopping up and down with a chain round my neck.''

Band of Joy was the name of the psychedelic blues band fronted by a teenage Plant, just before the Yardbirds guitarist Page scooped him up for Led Zeppelin. Its current incarnation, which includes two Nashville luminaries, the guitarist/producer Buddy Miller and the singer Patty Griffin, plays startlingly diverse music ranging from obscure gospel, soul, folk and blues to more contemporary songs by Los Lobos, Townes Van Zandt, the alt-rock group Low and even Plant and Page.

''You can get so easily typecast,'' Plant says. ''You can find routines and formulas that you drop into, and you say, 'Hey, this is my style.' I think back on the days of Band of Joy. We were finding a brand new place to be coming from, that kind of English-psychedelic blues idiom, at the expense of popularity and success.

''And I see that what I do now is I stimulate myself by being in great environments, at the cost and at the joy of moving away from being typecast, and continuing to open my repertoire and using my gift just like I was doing when I was 17.''

Plant's previous musical adventure, the album Raising Sand, with the bluegrass figure Alison Krauss, should have ended his strutting-rocker typecasting for good. A haunting, subtle record of blues, early rock and obscure Americana laced with shimmering harmonies, Raising Sand made a surprise sweep of last year's Grammy Awards, winning five prizes, including those for album of the year and record of the year.

Plant's love of American music dates to his teens, when he and a generation of British rockers found in the blues a soul and sensuality lacking in their culture, inspired a musical movement and helped power the British rock'n'roll invasion. Plant and his 1960s compatriots romanticised America's big cars and big-busted women and what he calls ''the shudder and quake of Howlin' Wolf''.

''In Britain austerity was the name of the game before the swinging '60s kicked in. Our music scene was basically looking at America.

''There are so many different cultures in America. We were all just Anglo-Saxons or Celts hanging onto tradition and looking quite enviously at America. So when I got to America I was never gonna let it go.''

With Band of Joy, he is reaching even deeper into US traditions, finding roots in Europe, Latin America and beyond, still enthralled by the wild sounds from across the pond.

''I'm using American stuff from the 19th century on this new record. I'm delving and digging into hill music from everywhere. Because a lot of the music comes from Ireland and Scotland anyway, and some of it comes from West Africa, and some of it comes from Cuba and Mexico, and it all melts into a great homogeneous American music.

''You don't get the same kind of stimulus in Stratford on Avon. Shakespeare's been dead a long time.''

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