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Plant's Plans for '08: Krauss Album/Tour, But No Zep


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"Yeah, it's true, but if you do it for the right reasons — and you only do it once — then it's fine," he says. "One motive, one night."

Immigrant songs

November 30, 2007

On the eve of exhuming Led Zeppelin, their singer is still sifting fresh sand, writes Michael Dwyer.

SELF-ASSURANCE has never been Robert Plant's short suit. When the golden god of Led Zeppelin requests an earnest opinion on his new endeavour with bluegrass golden girl Alison Krauss, it takes a moment to clock his meaning.

"How do you think we'd get on at Byron Bay Blues Festival?" he inquires conspiratorially.

Well, sir, you'd kill. Roots music fans know her as the Grammy-scooping queen of "newgrass" — and aren't you that iconic singer guy from the most electrifying blues juggernaut that ever rocked the planet?

There's the problem. What he really wants to know is, would he and Krauss be free to pursue the superbly muted harmony of their new album, Raising Sand, an eerie distillation of ancient blues, country, folk and early rock'n'roll, or would their reception be compromised by the monumental shadow of Zeppelin?

"You see, I know how it is in Australia, and I know how it's been," Plant says. Again, this is code: something about classic-rock radio and the arrested development of the bogan groundswell. "But maybe it would work," he muses teasingly.

Plant has made his arm's-length relationship with his past abundantly clear since Zeppelin died, along with drummer John Bonham, in September 1980.

He's made a dozen albums since, including a dead-set masterpiece in 2005, Mighty ReArranger, on which he continued to insist on artistic currency:

"My peers may flirt with cabaret, some fake the rebel yell/ Me, I'm moving up to higher ground, I must escape their hell".

Those words, it must be said, sit awkwardly with Zeppelin's historic reunion in London on December 10. It's a one-off charity event to mark the death of Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun, but nonetheless a concession to nostalgia that their singer has long resisted.

"Yeah, it's true, but if you do it for the right reasons — and you only do it once — then it's fine," he says. "One motive, one night."

And 1 million people, clamouring for 20,000 tickets?

"It's amazing, isn't it?" he chuckles. "Christ, I'm so humbled by it, and I know the other guys are, too, bless 'em."

Given the timing of Raising Sand, it's tempting to see the album as a pre-emptive strike against those who would scorn the Zeppelin reunion as his surrender to the past.

Plant says that never crossed his mind, though he agrees the album "does seem to have resonance now".

He says it was not a bid for transcendence but something almost mystically familiar that made him phone Krauss seven years ago.

"I could tell by her intonation and by the choices of material that I was exposed to that there was common ground," he says.

"A lot of the material that she may have leant upon wouldn't be a million miles away from the stuff that (English folk-rock pioneer) Sandy Denny was playing me years ago, some of the more traditional, archaic British folk music."

Denny memorably brought the folk gravitas to Zeppelin's The Battle of Evermore, circa '71, and there are certainly shades of that misty mood in Raising Sand, both from Krauss' Appalachian folk baggage and less tangible sources.

The material extends from the early blues of Doc Watson and Little Milton, via the Everly Brothers and the Flying Burrito Brothers, to modern songs by Tom Waits and Plant and Jimmy Page.

The magic is in its cohesion, an ethereal suspension of time and place concocted by producer T Bone Burnett. He's the American recording ace who brought Krauss to an international audience on his O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000.

One of the most haunting songs is Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, written by Burnett's wife, Sam Phillips, as a homage to 1940s Chicago gospel singer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

"I was fortunate enough to see her play when I was a kid," Plant can't help mentioning.

"I was actually waiting for Son House to struggle out on the stage, but Rosetta Tharpe was there.

"That's the nice thing about being a bit older (he turned 60 in August). I was around when they were around."

Plant already knows where he will be the month after Zeppelin's stadium date in London, and it's not on a private jet with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason (son of John) Bonham.

"T Bone wants us to cut another record in January," he enthuses.

But the road he's travelling has a funny way of coming full circle.

"Alison's already started singing a pretty spooky version of a Memphis Minnie song from 1941, the one that ended up on Led Zeppelin IV." (He means When The Levee Breaks.)

"She sings it real good and the violin break — you wouldn't believe it."

Raising Sand is out on Universal.

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