Band of Joy

After the success of 2007’s Raising Sand – the album that finally won Robert Plant a Grammy award (Led Zeppelin received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005) it would have been easy to replicate that effort. But Plant is an avid musical explorer who’s wide-ranging interest has taken him to northern Africa, the British Isles, to Appalachia and the American south. Turning down a chance to tour with a reunited Led Zeppelin, Plant headed into the studio with a new band led by guitarist and co-producer Buddy Miller.

Band of Joy is named after Plant’s first band, one he established at age seventeen with future Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. In those days Plant covered other writer’s songs, drawing out his own musical personality and voice by re-interpreting their music. Plant does the same here, choosing 12 songs that allow him to “re-invoke that attitude and sentiment.” He begins by injecting a middle-eastern sensibility into the Los Lobos song “Angel Dance.” Plant shows impeccable taste in songwriters, following up with Richard Thompson’s superbly crafted “House of Cards.” Buddy Miller doesn’t attempt to imitate Thompson’s distinctive guitar style, opting instead for grinding, rhythmic strumming. “Central Two-O-Nine” is a Plant/Miller original that emanates from Appalachian roots from the train metaphor to the twanging banjo, mandolin, and accordion.

Patty Griffin plays a prominent role on several tracks, although not as Alison Krauss did on Raising Sand. Instead of playing the duet partner Griffin is a foil for Plant, or, as he puts it, “the serene…sidekick.” Her ethereal vocals drift behind his, a ghostly presence in songs like “Silver Rider” and “Monkey.” “Can’t Buy My Love” gives Plant and Griffin the chance to celebrate old-time rock ‘n’ roll.

In press releases Plant has expressed a love of lyric and he exhibits an impeccable ear for language. Selecting Townes Van Zandt’s foreboding “Harm’s Swift Way” Plant and Griffin infuse the lamenting lyrics with a hopeful spirit. Plant wraps the album with two gospel inspired songs. “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is stripped to the bone with acoustic instrumentation and muted harmonies. “Even This Shall Pass Away” underscores Plant’s penchant for surprising reinterpretations of traditional material. Although the lyrics are all gospel, the arrangement is percussive – drums and guitar – and Plant’s edgy phrasing.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)