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"Robert Plant: The Showman Must Go On"


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Ed Vulliamy from the Guardian (UK) was in town last weekend for the Band of Joy shows here in Toronto. The main part of this interview was conducted on Jan. 23rd, when we were at the Royal York Hotel. Interesting to note that Ed is also a veteran war correspondent.



Robert Plant: the showman must go on (Guardian UK Feature)

01.30.2011 Aged 62, and with Brit award nomination, Robert Plant shows no sign of hanging up his mic. He talks Wolves, Led Zeppelin – and why stretch limos are no replacement for the bus

Robert Plant Robert Plant: 'If you're a singer, you can never say this is where the voyage ends.'

Robert Plant prowls on stage and does a puckish pastiche of that pointed-forefinger gesture for which he has been famous for decades, then skips into his other performing hallmark, the stance on crossed-over legs, like an elegant estuary wading bird. There is jocular self-parody in this showmanship, which exudes playful, sanguine satisfaction for what we are about to receive.

Yes, Plant wears outrageous patent winkle-pickers, but there will be none of that bared chest lark of yore – rather, a thick woollen maritime sweater, for the temperature in the streets of Toronto has plunged past -20C. The backdrop behind the band and modest light show is the cover image from Plant's new album: a clown holding a cushion on which sits a ring of gold, lambent. And if there is something of Plant the trickster, the wise jester, tonight – which there certainly is – then the golden ring he has found is this group of musicians, who kick off "Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday" with aflush and panache that is deceptively effortless. "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls," Plant greets the crowd, now more like a ringmaster opening his circus act. "Welcome to another amazing evening with the scintillating, transcendental Band of Joy!" They play the free-rolling "Angel Dance", also off the new album, and then: "When I get older, settling down/ Will you come down to the sea?"

Two things become strikingly apparent: that as Robert Plant – the greatest voice in rock music – gets older he does anything but settle down; quite the reverse – at the age of 62, he must keep exploring and self-exploring. And that, as at any good circus, behind the magic there is mischief and mastery of the art, behind the wit there is alchemy, and there will be surprises too, in the range of Plant's remarkable voice, and extraordinary textures in the guitar work to which Buddy Miller, wizard of Nashville, now sets himself.

What on earth is going on? "Well," says Plant the following day, when the sky is blue but the air even colder, "this is the Band of Joy I played in all that time ago, or at least that was the plan: to go to the place where much of the music we were playing in the 60s originated, and play it with these people. But now it has a life of its own. In the free-form moments of our music, we're playing a mixture of Indo-jazz fusion and a great gig by Jefferson Airplane."

Good, so all the boring Robert Plant cliches – "rock god", "leonine mane", etc – can go out of the window at once and we can, with the excuse that he's nominated for a Brit award next month, talk about the music-making that began when Plant formed the original Band of Joy in 1966.

Fans of rock'n'roll know the story well: how the Band of Joy could not get a recording contract and Plant left to join the New Yardbirds, later Led Zeppelin, arguably the world's greatest rock'n'roll band, who split up in 1980 after the tragic death of Plant's friend (and drummer in the Band of Joy), John Bonham. They reconvened triumphantly, in December 2007, for a tribute concert to Led Zep's mentor in the recording industry, Ahmet Ertegün, with Bonham's son Jason on drums.

No one who had the luck, connections or cash to be there that epic night will fail to remember it – it was a hurricane. And with the band – Plant in particular – asserting their creative energy, stage presence and technical competence at such gale force, there was inevitable talk of a reunion and the offer of $200m to tour.

But one did not need to follow the conjecture and gossip to know that there wasn't going to be a tour. You just needed to know the eight solo albums Plant had made in the meantime and of his project at the time: a musical adventure as far removed as was imaginable from screaming "Whole Lotta Love" every night for 18 months. Plant had secluded himself in Nashville to record his most successful of all those post-Zeppelin albums, Raising Sand, with country singer Alison Krauss. Quite apart from the quality of the musicianship, Plant had entered a new – well, different – vocal soundscape: intense but restrained, with understated close harmonies.

"I would say it was restlessness if it was not something else, which is inquisitive curiosity and the need to challenge myself," says Plant, sitting in the gallery above the lobby of Toronto's Royal York hotel. "It's a two-dimensional gig being a singer, and you can get lost in your own tedium and repetition."

So it should have been no surprise that Plant stayed in Nashville and that, having done so, he moved on to something else, for Band of Joy is by no means a country album, nor second instalment of Raising Sand; it is edgier, a richer, more complex weave. Their name is a nod to the band who toured the UK between 1967 and 1968. But now, Plant's Band of Joy is a supergroup in Nashville terms.

"I wonder sometimes, how did I get into this family of people?" says Plant. "Sometimes I feel as though I'm not contributing so much as getting away with it. People always say I'm a man who knows what he's doing, but there's no plan – this band has a life of its own. It's breaking down all the terminologies; all the terms that apply to different genres are being torn asunder."

No wonder, given who comprises the group. Buddy Miller is variously guitarist to Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams – the man who gives their music eeriness and edge. Patty Griffin, from the same Nashville stable, is a star of Americana country music, as is Darrell Scott.

"It is selfless," says Plant. "It's about contribution. Everyone is throwing themselves into this abstraction called Band of Joy, and no one knows what it is. But we know how to find it, and we go looking." Referring to Nicola Powell, his indefatigable and effervescent manager from Merthyr Tydfil without whom he probably wouldn't get around the world the way he does, Plant adds: "I asked Nic if my rambling between songs on stage is getting too obscure. She says no, it's just about mad enough to capture the spirit of the thing". Introducing one number that night, Plant describes his band as "a multifarious, many-headed and beautiful beast!" "We love you Robert!" shouts a lady from the darkness. "Let's keep that between us", he replies. "People talk…"

The sound on record is crystalline, the notes and silences between them, the surfaces and depths, played and engineered to perfection. But live, it is something else again — it flourishes and ripens,and gets better; Plant is not content with the fact that a concert at the Kentish Town Forum is the last that England heard of this band and double bass player Byron House confides in Toronto that "something went up a notch in Ann Arbor last night; something happened that hadn't happened before – we were better than we've ever been". And in Toronto, somewhere during an old Uncle Tupelo song called "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down", a spell of sorts descends on the Canadian theatre, too, an alchemic moment, and the musicians Cheshire cat grin at one another, because they know.

Plant says something special the next day: "When you see what we did last night, that is why we do it. Yes, there's a lot of smiling on stage, but there's a lot of hard work and there are a lot of fuck-ups too. We've worked together a lot now, we know each other; there are no secret corners. I'm as absurd as ever and they are gratefully patient. Every male-driven innuendo I come up with, Patti just rolls her eyes and chuckles.

"We are good at everything you would expect to be good," says Plant, "because you could never find more talented musicians than these; playing together or in those passages sometimes when people are dropping in and out, when sometimes one of us will just opt out for a minute and a half."

But this is also Plant's band, and something else is happening, chromatically: most places Plant goes, he takes with him that singular legacy of his first visits in the mid-70s to the high Atlas mountains and pre-Saharan Morocco, whence came songs like "Kashmir". "When you hear north African or Indo-jazz fusion in the Band of Joy mix," he says, "that is mine. If I take credit for anything in this band, that's it, that's something I've brought to Nashville, and I'm proud of that."

Robert Plant's music-making is like an hourglass. At the source of the process is a wider, more rapacious range of influences than those of any other singer, which converge through the bottleneck of Plant's remarkable voice and muse, only to widen again into a delta of sound, incorporating and interweaving all of them. Plant once talked about "subliminal flutters passing Beefheart, Son House, Terry Reid and the call to prayer from the minaret of the Koutoubia in Marrakech, all waiting to contribute to the next sound". "Every 16 bars, we visit another country," Plant had told me while rehearsing in a barn in Wiltshire with his excellent band Strange Sensation in 2006, and he still does.

It starts with Delta blues, then follows them north with the migrations to southside Chicago, where Elmore James plugged the black man's blues into the white man's amplifier. Into that mix add "Jimmy Powell, Chris Farlowe, Steve Marriott and John Lennon" – the latter of whom haunts the Band of Joy's track "Falling in Love Again". The trails of Victorian explorer Richard Burton (whom Plant read as a boy) took him to north Africa and the discovery of those Indo-Arabic sound tapestries, and then there's that often forgotten ingredient, on which Plant draws for his encore in Toronto: the lovely "I Bid You Goodnight", an a cappella gospel song resurrected in the 1960s by the Incredible String Band. People often forget that Led Zeppelin were a folk band, too, drawing in no small part on the mystical history and song of the Welsh borderlands where Plant grew up and lives (at least nominally) — Celts, Saxons and Britons overlaying one another's pagan and early mystical Christian roots. But, as Plant says, the String Band got the song from Joseph Spence and the Pindar family, who were Bahamanian.So a conversation with Plant in Toronto about the tributaries feeding the Band of Joy is a wild musicological crisscrossing of the Atlantic.We talk about young Plant in England, the son of civil engineer, with a passion for Wolverhampton Wanderers; but "with receptors wide open to everything", too, transfixed by visits of Son House and the Delta bluesmen, "though it if it hadn't been for people like Mike Bloomfield in America, Son House would never have been found driving a school bus, as he was".

Particular concerts are recalled: Bukka White, Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at Birmingham town hall between 1963 and 1966. "When I met Sonny Terry," says Plant, "he was blind, and I had to help him guide the rubber stamp he used to autograph albums". But American bands of the 60s were meanwhile "doing things with songs like 'The Bells of Rhymney', and music that had come to America from the UK and Europe catalogued and collected by Cecil Sharp to Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress". This is the music that, essentially, became Americana, that rich, mercurial gathering of folk, country, gospel, bluegrass and r'n'b.

In his introduction to Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole" in Toronto, Plant gives the headbangers in his audience a brief lesson in its trajectory as "an English folk song" which came across the ocean "with the Pilgrim Fathers to Virginia, and down into Louisiana, where it was taken and made into a black song. We heard this song by a guy called Lead Belly back in the 60s". Following three Atlantic crossings, from Plymouth to the deep south via Virginia, back to the Black Country and now to Nashville, it is sung almost as a tribute of gratitude.

"The further I get into it," says Plant of this musical world, "the harder it will be to get a gig in the Top Rank. I won't fit. If I continue doing this, it will mean obsolescence for me."

It is hard to imagine an obsolescent Robert Plant, but if that is what happens, and the theatres get smaller, he will not seem to mind, such is the contentment he exudes. "I'm just incredibly fortunate that my eyes and ears have been opened. I have to be honest with myself and remove as much of the repetition and fakery as is humanly possible. To soothe the savage heart, we have to repeat ourselves sometimes – that's entertainment."

The Canadian audience loves the new music and three blondes of a certain age stand throughout, shouting "We love you, Robert!" But most stay seated – "and they should be sitting on their butts listening", says Plant the next day. "I am not Michael Jackson! I don't expect everyone to get the drift, and I don't always get the drift myself, but I am willing enough to be transported."

So they sit until, that is, they hear the first charismatic chords of a gratifyingly countrified version of Led Zep's "Ramble On", upon which a tidal wave of people head for the stage.

It is almost as embarrassing asking Plant those questions people want asking about Led Zeppelin as it is for him to answer them. He calls the band "that tumultuous, amazing combination of friends", and says: "We were great when we were great. I was part of something magnificent which broke the Guinness Book of Records, but in the end, what are you going to get out of it? Who are you doing it for? You have to ask these questions: who pays the piper, and what is valuable in this life? I don't want to scream 'Immigrant Song' every night for the rest of my life, and I'm not sure I could." Then he says, simply: "I returned my winter fuel allowance."

The duty done, what Plant goes on to say to deviate from the discourse is really interesting. I think about him sleeping on the Band of Joy's tour bus and his preference for covering a Richard Thompson song ("House of Cards") for 3,000 people in this intimate theatre, rather than belt out "Immigrant Song" for 20,000 at the Air Canada Centre next door, and the thought comes out all wrong: you don't have to do this, I say.

"Yes, I do have to do this!" retorts Plant. "It is exactly what I have to do. If you're a singer, you can never say this is where the voyage ends, the job is never done. Once you have got it, you cannot sit on it. I have to try and change the landscape, whatever it is. I have to find a new place to ply my trade, to get lost in another place, and locate myself again. I'm an older man now and so it's even more important."

And so begins a discussion on lifestyle, and the advantages of being aboard a tour bus heading through the night for Pennsylvania and eventually back to Nashville in many months' time, over a poolside cocktail in the Turks and Caicos, with a jet on hand to arrive at the gig via limo from the airstrip.

"It's all by bus," beams Plant. "It's a great way to see America and a great way to meet interesting people. But most of all, I want to be on these kind of terms with these kind of people. There's no point in doing it any other way, and if I did, I'd feel uncomfortable. I've got the big name, but I've always wanted to be in a band, one of a band. And this is what I have to be to do it.

"For me," he continues, "it would become progressively more difficult to talk about music at a whist drive. All my colleagues that I've known and loved – our lives have been lived in parallel for 40 years – and you have to say: each to their own. People get off on what they get off on – I'm not going to tell anyone how to live, and they may get more pleasure from their environment than they think I'm getting from mine. But I do not want to arrive to join the band tonight in a limo."

It was always interesting that Plant remained on home territory, Welsh border country – only now, there seems to be a critical mass, a magnetic field drawing him closer to America than ever. Unsurprisingly, he talks about that magnetism in terms of the people and music.

"The physical topography, and the regional peculiarities of the place I come from," he says, "is so much part of me. But I plough a lone furrow, and I do feel more and more this telepathy with south Nashville. That is where this music is, that is where the mind is. I need to be with these people."

Plant speaks about his musicians and their world with as much personal affection as he does respect for their talent – and for what it is in life that they aspire to. "A lot of the people I've got to work with," he says, "don't have the time or inclination to make it big in the bump and flash of Kodachrome music. I do this because I want to. Getting on the cover of Billboard isn't part of the plan."

There was, and is, a constant: throughout Led Zeppelin and the subsequent albums: that extraordinary instrument of the larynx which dominated everything. He can sound soft, angry, seductive, ecstatic, tortured, joyous and melancholic. Now, Plant – the greatest frontman in rock'n'roll – is also singing close harmony and backing vocals. "I'm a singer," he says, "and there's a lot of singing in this band. When one sings like this, with others, the voice is good. I'm really pleased with how I sing with this band. Hell, never mind my raison d'être, what about my singing? How else am I going to feel accomplished?

You have to be in Nashville to be with these people. But still, it is a hell of a distance, 4,000-5,000 miles, from my work station… yes and my vinyl."

I am someone who has just had his entire vinyl collection, assembled over 45 years, waylaid and destroyed by a shipping company somewhere between Hammersmith, west London, and Los Angeles, and Plant is the man to talk to, especially about the scores of old blues and folkways records, never mind the complete and lovingly scratched Led Zeppelin; he understands the bereavement. His famous and capacious collection has a particular concentration on, he says, "obscure black pop music between 1958 and the mid-60s". Before our conversation, we had walked around that gallery above the great lobby, lined with photographs of music downstairs, and come upon a trio of black girls singing here in 1952: "Now that's my kind of band," said Plant. We talk vinyl and how the loss of one's record collection is greater than that of the wealth of a king, or even a lady: "Whenever I have bid a hasty goodbye to a loved one, I've always made sure that my record collection was safely stored away in the boot of the car," insists Plant. "Sometimes the parting was so fast, I was not able to get them into alphabetical order, but I still got away with my records, that was essential."

I was always quietly proud of how I came to meet Robert Plant, which had nothing to do with seeing Led Zeppelin at the Lyceum or Liverpool Empire, but with war in Iraq. My photographer friend Steve Connors and I drove for weeks, in spring 2003, in Fallujah, Najaf and Nasiriyah with only one CD in our old GMC wagon: No Quarter by Plant and Page, to which we must have listened a hundred times in war's ghastly aftermath. Plant heard the story and we discussed it at the Queens Head pub, opposite St Mary's church in Bury St Edmunds, before John Peel's funeral in 2004 (Plant was drinking tea). Next I knew, it was my great honour to be writing liner notes for Plant's collected solo albums.

And those albums explain in their way why Plant is doing exactly what he is: through those Nine Lives, you follow him from the "deep sense of loss", then "staring into the sharp, real fresh air and sunlight of a new world", through the technological adventure of Shaken 'n' Stirred; from the Marquee Club with material for Now and Zen to the increased wattage on Manic Nirvana – to the three great adventures, entwining the Arabic chromatics, folk music and whatever mystical, lyrical vision was contained in Fate of Nations, Dreamland and the extraordinary Mighty ReArranger. At the end, I was able to describe the set of nine as "the heretofore, the prelude to whatever Robert Plant does next".

And that remains just as true of Band of Joy.To say that Plant is doing things with this band that he has never done before is true even with regard to where he positions himself on stage. The most compelling frontman in the history of rock'n'roll retreats to sing backing vocals for Patty Griffin's "Love Throw a Line" and takes a rear seat again for Darrell Scott's "Satisfied Mind". There is close harmony and a capella, there is silk and there is American dirt road grit. "I think this course of events and the music I'm making are appropriate for my time of life," he says.However intense the partnership on tour, says Plant, "all these people will move on into other areas when we finish in August. We'll turn another page and then – inshallah – we'll collide again". Plant's idea of "settling down" is more likely to involve an invitation for someone to "come to the sea"– with all the menace that implies – than renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight. And it is hard to imagine Plant's faithful marriage to, and retirement with, any "last band". But when asked if he does intend to reconvene Band of Joy in some form, at some time, he replies: "Oh yes."

But his reflection concerns more general thoughts than passing musicians moving on. "There are far more important things than this," he says suddenly. No, this is not the beginning of a long discourse on politics or the state of the universe, nor about the higher forces that Plant's music has been invoking for some time now – from 1993's Fate of Nations onwards. "This is just a little bit of ear candy, really, in the great cut and thrust of things," he muses. "For some people, it's just a night at the theatre. Never mind politics – it's true of everybody, just getting on with their lives. For me, it is something to do which gives me very great pleasure. Which is why I'll keep on making music, so long as it meets the standard."

The second of two Toronto shows ends, and after the scrum to "meet and greet" Plant after the first night, there's only a trickle of old friends, acquaintances and liggers waiting to proffer thanks or get an autograph; the cold outside is so hyperborean, it is almost charismatic, "cold as a witch's kiss", as they say. Plant has made a lot of people very happy by referring several times to the theatre we are in as "the O'Keefe Centre", which it was when he played here with Zeppelin on 2 November 1969 — "twice!" he emphasises. It later became the Hummingbird theatre and is now, depressingly, the Sony Centre.

No, Plant admits, he can't remember either show at the O'Keefe Centre, but Toronto happens to be global headquarters for Plant and Zeppelin on the web, inasmuch as the archivist who manages Plant's website, Sam Rapallo, lives here. Now, backstage, Sam produces a scrapbook of notices from old newspapers – devotedly researched and copied from microfiche by fans and sent electronically to Canada – advertising gigs by "Robert Plant and the Band of Joy".

"'Live at the Staffordshire Volunteer!'" says Plant. "What a night that must have been." "There's a load of gigs in a place called Walsall," says Sam. "Ah yes, there would be," replies Plant.

Plant sips on a bottle of beer before the bus leaves for Pennsylvania, but there is a problem: it is one hell of a long way from Nashville to Molineux and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Whence the news is not good, Plant's Wolves having felt the sting of the Dalglish effect on Liverpool and lost at home in the place that used to manufacture Chubb locks, Sunbeam cars and bikes and Goodyear tyres in the days of the old Band of Joy – but no more.

"When I was a kid, I'd be there in the stands thinking: 'Come on Wolves, do it for me!'" recalls Plant. "And here I am again: 'Come on Wolves,' pleading with a borrowed laptop!"


Led Zep and beyond 1948 Born in West Bromwich to mother, Annie and civil engineer father, Robert.

1964 Abandons his training as a chartered accountant to pursue a career in music.

1966 Makes his first commercial recordings with CBS Records.

1967 Forms Band of Joy with drummer John Bonham. Approached by guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones; blues-rock band Led Zeppelin is born.

1971 The release of Led Zeppelin IV, which contains the song "Stairway to Heaven".

1980 Led Zeppelin split following the death of John Bonham.

1981 Plant performs in the Honeydrippers before releasing his first solo album.

1994 Page and Plant are reunited for two albums and two world tours.

1999 Plant takes to the road with folk-rock band Priory of Brion.

2005 The album Mighty ReArranger is nominated for two Grammy Awards.

2007 Collaborates with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss (right), their album Raising Sand winning five Grammys.

2009 Awarded the CBE and announced as vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.

2010 Revives the name Band of Joy, and tours UK and Europe, releasing an album.

2011 Nominated for a best male solo artist Brit award. Charlotte Black

Ed Vulliamy | The Observer


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The Royal York!? Sam, I love that place. Stayed there for Page/Plant at Molson Amphitheatre on the fourth of July '98. Apparently Robert stayed there in '88 and then JPJ in '01.

I just want to say I think it's very cool you took the time to compile all those vintage Band of Joy adverts Robert's fans have shared into a scrapbook for Robert to review.



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That was a really good article to read. Great insight into Roberts frame of mind and the tour going on right now.

What a shame about his record collection being destroyed by a shipping company. I was wondering just how big that collection was. Some of those vinyls are probably irreplacable.

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What a great read that was. Lot of great insight by Robert on his current and past musical frame of mind. Just wants to keep moving forward. Too bad there aren't more musicians like Robert with that kind of attitude. Thanks Sam!

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That was a really good article to read. Great insight into Roberts frame of mind and the tour going on right now.

What a shame about his record collection being destroyed by a shipping company. I was wondering just how big that collection was. Some of those vinyls are probably irreplacable.

was the author of the articles collection that was ruined..not Plants......if i am not mistaken

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was the author of the articles collection that was ruined..not Plants......if i am not mistaken

I went back and re read that paragraph again. You are probably right. Still a shame for anyone to lose a treasured collection.

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What an amazing article. I was wondering if anyone knows the time frame for Robert's writing of new music with BOJ. I read an article saying that by the time April rolls around, people at the Chicago concert could be possibly treated with hearing the new stuff? I also read Robert saying something to the effect that this tour will last through August and then everyone will disperse doing their own stuff and then all reconvene? Maybe they are writing in the mid-February-March break? No tour dates scheduled then? So they will eventually be writing/performing new material which means a whole new tour. Great. Just keep coming Robert. Don't stop.

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Nice article!

I found it a bit tedious to slug through the author's writing style, though.

It would have been easier to read if he had just toned it down a bit.

Just my opinion. Personally, I like reading articles that are more succinct with straight talk and to the point language.

Nice that Sam gets a mention in the article!

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