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Live review: Robert Plant and Band of Joy at the Greek Theatre

April 24, 2011 |  3:23 pm

Robert plant Hand it to Robert Plant: The man knows how to pick a band.

Right now it’s the Band of Joy, the rootsy ensemble led by Americana music hero Buddy Miller that largely lived up to its name at the first stop of its maiden tour Saturday at the Greek Theatre.

Miller is the one carryover from the Band of Joy’s extraordinary predecessor that Plant and collaborator Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett cooked up for the multiple Grammy-winning album “Raising Sand,” whose Greek tour stop in 2008 was one of the most scintillating concerts in recent years.

Then there was Plant’s '80s outfit the Honeydrippers, an early excursion into roots rock and R&B that allowed the curly-locked singer to delve into the music of his youth.

And, for all we know, there may have been another of note along the way.

OK, OK, so Led Zeppelin does cast a rather large shadow, but Plant has shown no qualms about either stepping away from it, or from occasionally traipsing back through it when the mood strikes.

The Greek audience was, not surprisingly, heavily laced with classic rock fans who erupted enthusiastically every time Plant made the Zep connection, to the extent that their reaction nearly became a running gag Saturday: Zeppelin song? We’re on our feet. Non-Zep tune? We’ll sit this one out. Undoubtedly, there are a lot of those fans who will never forgive him for turning down offer after offer for a Zeppelin reunion because he prefers the musical path he’s on to the nostalgia circuit.

Yet the 62-year-old rock god embraced the reality of his world with zeal, opening the show with a haunting folk-blues treatment of Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” pretty much the same arrangement he and Krauss used to appease the oldies-hungry fans in the house. Reframing that, "Ramble On" and, especially, "Houses of the Holy," away from amped-up heavy rock of yore placed songs from the Zeppelin canon more fully within the context of the archetypal folk explorations to which he's devoting himself now.  

From there they touched on about half the songs from last year’s “Band of Joy” album which, like “Raising Sand,” mines the deep wellspring of elemental American and, to a lesser extent, Celtic folk music traditions. Plant fronts the group that also includes singer-guitarist Patty Griffin, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino, but also generously shared the spotlight, giving solo time to Miller, Griffin and Scott.

Plant obviously cherishes this music, whether it’s a traditional spiritual such as “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” an eloquent alt-country masterwork like Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way” or a lullaby as truly sweet as Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance.”

Band of Joy, the album and the band, is generally more earthbound than his pairing with Krauss on “Raising Sand,” which consistently aspired to a higher musical and spiritual plane. One isn’t inherently better, and the terrestrial component Plant and Miller emphasize in Band of Joy’s material makes it possibly easier for mere mortals to relate to.

He’s still primarily interested in wrestling with the stuff that matters:  the fleetingness of temporal life and the possibilities of what may exist beyond it, the challenge of finding and holding onto love, the notion that perhaps with all the technological advances humankind has made over the centuries that something of greater value has been lost.

In that respect, it’s no surprise the thought of singing “Whole Lotta Love” one more time doesn’t hold much thrill for Plant.

The one hitch in the show, however, was Griffin. She’s a wonderful songwriter in her own right, and her voice blends beautifully with Plant’s still pliant instrument. But she remained disconnected from her would-be partner for most of the night. It was almost an hour into the set before she even directly locked eyes with Plant, who seemed to be yearning for an equal, as he had with Krauss, not simply a hired gun singer who could serve up studio-perfect harmonies.

That made it more of a Band of Pleasance during the portions of the show in which Plant leaned heavily on Griffin.  But the joy surfaced -- in the music and on Plant’s face -- when he engaged with Miller for one of his gritty guitar excursions, or with Scott, who brought a strong country-bluegrass foundation both to his vocals and his contributions on mandolin, banjo, acoustic and steel guitar.

In those moments, Plant seemed to inhabit Goethe’s answer to the question, “Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though t'were his own.”

There was a fair amount of joy in the opening set from brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson in their two-man edition of their North Mississippi Allstars. Guitarist Luther spun out lots of raw, blues-drenched guitar lines over the primal rhythms Cody laid down on his drum kit in a performance, although it would have been more powerful within the cozier confines of a blues bar than the wide-open spaces of an amphitheater.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Robert Plant. Credit: Carlo Allegri / Associated Press