Caught by the River

Raising Sand Live

23rd May 2008

For a while back there, I worried that I was alone last year in wishing that Robert Plant would knit off the Zeppelin reunion and get himself out on the road with Alison Krauss and T Bone Burnett. On the evidence of a gig I recently witnessed, I very much doubt I was. For two hours, a sold out, 12,000 capacity Wembley Arena was somehow made to feel like an intimate club while one of the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars on the planet was humbled by his fellow players to the point of adoring silence. Plant & Krauss’s “Raising Sand” album, released towards the end of last year, was one of those unexpected curveball records, the ones that take you entirely by stealth, the ones that come along once every few years and take up permanent residence on your stereo. A selection of covers produced by T Bone Burnett (described by Plant onstage as “a man who has produced so many beautiful records, overseen soundtracks and done lots of drugs”), “Raising Sand” is the kind of record that people who’ve been in the game for years (check Prince, Bowie, The Stones…) just don’t seem to make – and, really, why would they bother? It’s a record imbibed with bright eyed passion, a fire even. As a set of covers, mainly obscure, it mines the very coal face of Americana, of early rock ‘n’ roll, of the blues, of country. Really, you can’t imagine the bank manager thinking that the Mothership is being dusted off for a global jaunt then hearing about this record and sparking up a fat Cuban in celebration.

So, six months after the release and the record is taken on the road in the face of legions of angry Zeppelin fans, feeling like they’ve been robbed of their birthright by Plant’s decision to explore a very different set of waters. That’s quite a lot of stoney faced rockers with a large chip on the shoulder about what they’re denied. You can imagine the rehearsals for the gigs and the old Tony Soprano maxim coming to the band’s minds “You’d better come heavy or don’t come at all.” The point at which the band lay waste to Zep’s “Black Dog”, with an overdriven, squalling fiddle taking the place of the guitar solo, you sense that the band have risen to the challenge of appeasing Plant’s core fanbase and then decided to see if they can fuck with their heads a little. The music is a perfect storm of noise – bluegrass, pure country, four-piece harmonies, fiddle solos that sound like Jimmy Page going crackers at the Grand Ole Opry. At points, it’s pure New Orleans voodoo up there – I mean, there are two dudes in the band who look like Dr John which can only add a pure menacing Gris Gris effect. The Black Lodge nightclub in Twin Peaks also springs to mind, the kind of band you might witness in a spooky, dusty off-the-beaten track kind of clubhouse. When playing the Townes Van Zanzt song “Nothing”, Plant describes the lyrics as “a profound piece of pain”, then proceeds to go at it with the full force vocal onslaught you’d normally see reserved for galloping hair metal music. This – you think – this is special.

What’s really most surprising about the pairing is how much Plant’s voice is an eerily symbiotic foil to Krauss’s and vice versa. It’s also touching to see how respectful he is of her voice. A four song section where Krauss takes the lead produces the most jaw dropping moment, the “Oh Brother Where Are Thou” stand-out “Down To The River To Pray”, performed accapella with a 3 piece back up, including Plant, who keeps a safe minimal distance, huddled round one microphone with two band members, lost in the moment. This really couldn’t be any further from hammering out “Kashmir” at Knebworth if it tried. Add to that “The Battle Of Evermore” which manages to fuse a deep soul country soul to the late ‘60’s folk rock movement, with Krauss taking on Sandy Denny’s backing vocal and you’ve just witnessed something pretty magical.

The rumours abound that with this tour out of the way, Zeppelin will get back on the road and show the current generation how it’s really done, that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are waiting in the wings with a dry towel and a pocket full of cheques for amounts that could eradicate world hunger. More encouraging for me though was the recent interview with Plant & Krauss where they talked about continuing this project, possibly with an album of songs written by them and the current band, exploring fully the sound they’re creating. Call me old fashioned (I mean pre-Zeppelin, pre-rock ‘n’ roll old fashioned) but that really is something to get excited about…

Robin Turner