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Led Zeppelin Zaps Kids

Kyle from Rockford, lllinois is the last one in the men’s room as the houselights go down in Chicago Sta­dium. Robert Plant shakes his long, golden mane while the amplifiers burst forth with Led Zeppelin’s ode to their music, “Rock and Roll,” but Kyle is chugging a Budweiser and changing his shirt. Off comes the J. C. Penney mandala print; on with the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “I just bought it,” he says, as he pulls out a fistful of White Owl joints. We smoke one, and it’s just like doing tobacco in the high school john. I put the butt on the sink after each inhale, in case the law or a teacher, comes in.

But this is no extracurricular ac­tivity: for this high school genera­tion, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English. “People are desperate for tickets,” says Perry, a New Yorker recently out of high school. A friend of his was punched in the stomach when a Gimbels Ticketron line became unruly. (Zeppelin play six New York arena concerts: the Garden February 3, 7, and 12; Nassau Coli­seum Feb. 4, 13, and 14.) A number of Chicago fans camped all night in near zero temperatures before tick­ets went on sale. Eleven persons were arrested outside Chicago Stadi­um Monday night as they attempted to sell $8.50 tickets to undercover agents for up to $100 a pair. In Boston, fans lined up three days early for tickets, possibly due to a communications breakdown. The hall’s beer supply was seized, bottles thrown, furniture destroyed, and an estimated $50,000 in damages result­ed. Like other recent concerts in socially disturbed Boston (Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five), Led Zeppelin’s appearance was cancelled. The group, however, should bear at least ­some of the blame for hyperactive customers and inflated scalper prof­its. Recent tours by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones resulted in an equally intense demand for tickets, but no incidents, since their tickets were sold by mail order with a limit of four per subscriber. Our New York friend was deprived when a person in front of him on another Ticketron line bought the 35 remaining tickets. Assuming the buyer wasn’t an agent for everyone in his home room, he stands to gross up to $1750 at top scalper rates.

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Nevertheless, a case could be made for Led Zeppelin as the most popular rock ‘n’ roll group of all time. The band rose from the re­mains of the Yardbirds, one of the more hallowed first generation En­glish groups and source of three of the best electric guitarists in rock: Eric Clapton, who left to form Cream; Jeff Beck, whose short-lived Jeff Beck Group introduced a frustrated soccer player named Rod Stewart; and Jimmy Page, around whom ex-Yardbird manager Peter Grant formed the new band. The three other members were John Paul Jones, a bass player and keyboard artist with impressive arrang­ing credentials (Stones, Donovan), and two unknowns, drummer John Bonham and lead singer, Robert Plant.

What the band created was no less than the aesthetic peak against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured. Rather than re­viving Chuck Berry tunes or early ’60s American rhythm ‘n’ blues hits, as the Stones and Beatles had done on their earliest albums, Led Zeppelin chose as reference points on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon, but without paying the kind of strict homage to the form common among English blues bands. They mutated the blues into a mega-amplified, manically surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form. As their discography grew, so did their ability as both writers and performers. While each very popular hard rock band has usually come up with one great song on which to hang their reputations — Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — Led Zeppelin has created at least half a dozen masterful songs, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and their piece de resistance, “Stairway to Heaven.”

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Though they’d sold millions of albums, and had evolved from pur­veyors of well-honed frenzy to artists capable of both passion and subtlety, they were scorned by the intelligent­sia because their early sound was associated with other enormously popular but markedly inferior groups like Funk, Sabbath and Pur­ple. There was another problem with critics, most of whom had grown up on Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, who refused to believe that a great group could be created after the early or mid-1960’s. Jimmy Page’s Yardbird experience gave the band some critical legitimacy, but they were never quite trusted by those distanced from the life-style of the enthusiastic new rock audience. For the first three and a half years, piqued by the critical shafting their albums received in publications like Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin did vir­tually no interviews. When Stone editor Jann Wenner saw some of the digits projected during the press offensive engineered by their 1973 tour’s ace PR man, Danny Goldberg (now vice-president at, 24, of Led Zep’s Swan Song Records), he offered the cover of the magazine and writer of their choice for a Rolling Stone interview. Unimpressed, the band refused.

After all, who needs publicity when you’ve got the numbers? Each of Led Zep’s five albums (a sixth, “Physi­cal Graffiti,” will be released this month), has sold over one million copies, with Led Zeppelin IV (which bears no real title, and is sometimes referred to by its catalog number, SD 7208) over two million in Ameri­ca, nearly four million worldwide. By contrast, the Rolling Stones, since joining the same record company (Atlantic distributes both Roll­ing Stones Records and Swan Song) have only one album over a million; in some instances, Led Zeppelin albums outsell the Rolling Stones by nearly two to one. During Zeppelin’s last American tour, in late spring and summer 1973, they broke the Beatles’ record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. In July 1973, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa, Florida. A bliz­zard of favorable publicity fell from the tour for the first time in the band’s history. Soon after, Swan Song Records was formed.

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“They felt that by using the busi­ness wisdom that had guided them, they could help other acts they believed in build their careers,” Danny Goldberg comments. This kind of vice-presidential philosophy has been heard before, but it is true that some of the label’s first signings, like Maggie Bell and the Pretty Things, have caused more interest among critics than among consumers. More than good karma, however, greeted the label’s first release by Bad Company, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the Led Zeppelin organi­zation, there is little distance be­tween the business and creative sectors.

Example: after what the band considered a dismal opening night in Chicago (the tour had begun a few nights earlier in Minneapolis), the Zeppelin team met to analyze the situation. The four musicians met with manager Grant, who guides their adventures in the money jun­gle, and road manager Richard Cole, who directs a small battalion of equipment movers, sound engineers and lighting personnel. Plant, who did have the flu, was told that it didn’t help audience spirits when he said so from the stage: 20,000 fans who’d waited two years to see their favorites didn’t need any shortcom­ings rationalized in advance. Jimmy Page, who jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, couldn’t really execute the involved improvisations on his tour de force, the six-year-old “Dazed and Con­fused,” so the tune was dropped temporarily and replaced with “How Many More Times,” another bit of bluesy freneticism from the first album. They hadn’t performed the song live in five years.

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Before the second Chicago show the band seemed enthusiastic. Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine. Amidst the backstage clatter, I asked Plant whether reports about violence on the ticket line made him fear that they could lose control of a crowd on this tour. “No. There’s no violent energy here,” said Plant, who tends to be a bit of a flower child, staring at me with meditatively clear blue eyes. “Violent energy can only be created. Some groups do it, know­ingly or unknowingly, and send out negative energy. Because we’ve got a sizable audience, people may think we’ll bring out violence, but it doesn’t happen.”

There must be a difference be­tween “peaceful energy,” the band’s declared spiritual intentions, and vi­olent music, which is what Led Zep­pelin unleashes from the stage. They play it with finesse, exuberance and charm, but that mass audience is there for 30,000 watts of rock ‘n’ roll, which almost by definition appeals to its aggressive, rebellious instincts. There is both pain and pleasure in heavy rock’s searing decibels, and mixed with unjudicious amounts of drugs and alcohol … Robert, you’re being naive.

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Plant is the visual center of the act. He wears tight blue jeans, and clearly no underwear. He wears a sort of Sino-Afro print vest that seems six sizes too small; he is the only male rock star who flashes tit and gets away with it. Although he does a brief peace rap before “The Song Remains the Same,” there is little of the cloying pretension that often goes along with such introduc­tions, partly because one is so dis­armed at finding spirituality mixed with sexuality in Plant’s projection, and partly because the audience does seem to be as well-behaved as any I’ve seen at an arena event, be it hockey, basketball, or rock ‘n’ roll. When someone throws a lit joint on the stage, Plant picks it up, looks at it, says “I’ve got a bad throat and all, but I might as well.” He takes two quick tokes. “Now we’re gonna play a new track, and it’s got nothin’ to do with that at all.” Should a superstar smoke dope on stage? Plant has the touch of a politician, standing firmly on both sides of the issue.

Page is the musical magnet of the stage show. Though Led Zeppelin is known as a guitar band, Page dis­plays few of the egocentricities of other acts oriented to lead guitar. He can be flamboyant, especially when using the double-necked, eighteen­-string guitar, but he plays with the efficiency and restraint of the studio musician — which is how Page began his career, on some of the great singles sessions of English rock with bands like the Kinks, Stones, and Who. Page’s subtle virtuosity is the key to Led Zeppelin’s strength. With only three instrumentalists, Page is attentive to Bonham and Jones’s firm rhythm control, while simul­taneously venturing out, adding width to the spectrum embraced by Plant’s plaintive vocals. After a par­ticularly incisive display, a fan exhi­bited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a roll of toilet paper. Bonham takes a turn in the spotlight with his “Moby Dick,” which some have hailed as the only interesting twenty-minute drum solo outside West Africa. Let’s just say (since I am no fan of the form) that it is not boring, with Bonham changing time, color, and maintaining a kind of melody, until he does away with sticks altogether and pummels his drums with his open hands. At the least, very effective showmanship.

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The highlight of the set came with “Stairway to Heaven,” a patiently weaved (nearly eight minutes on record) musical tapestry that proves that Led Zeppelin has the ability to remain a viable creative force long after “heavy metal” goes the way of other pop fads. One fan finds this tale (based on Celtic myths) so enchant­ing that she asked me to listen “extra hard and bring some of it back” when they played the tune. Although a top-forty FM station in Miami plays it as often as any of the hits on its playlist, and it is among the most requested songs on a New York oldies station, it has never been released as a single. Partly on the strength of the song, the album on which it appears, Zeppelin IV or SD 7208 continues to sell at the rate of 15,000 copies a week, though it is nearly four years old. “I overcame my dislike for Led Zeppelin when I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ” says New York fan Perry. “I hadn’t liked that blatant heavy metal stuff. But I said, wow, if they’re capable of this!” Indeed, “Stairway” will prob­ably stand with “In the Still of the Night,” “Satisfaction” and “Hey Jude” as one of the great oldies-but-­goodies of history, to be remembered even after we all find out what it means, as the song says, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Which proves that you don’t have to have grown up with Elvis and the Beatles to cherish oldies worthy of their gold. ❖

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PLANT ROOTS

Robert Plant’s post–Led Zeppelin career may be one of the most compelling musical afterlives. While his legendary band fused hard rock, blues, and folk with a variety of world-music influences as well as mythological tales (The Lord of the Rings being a huge source of inspiration for their lyrics), Plant has slowly ditched his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle over the years to focus solely on rootsy folk and blues. His most spectacular output was Raising Sand, a collaborative album with bluegrass artist Alison Krauss. Currently, this year’s worldly Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar is making a fantastic case for this being his strongest solo effort. After opening his tour at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre this week, Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters bring Brooklyn to otherworldly heights for two nights in a row.

Sat., Sept. 27; Sun., Sept. 28, 2014

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Patty Griffin

The veteran folk singer/songwriter has stayed on the ride since her 1996 debut with A&M, taking her own personal struggles and stories and using them to tell bigger ones with her inimitable songcraft. While Griffin’s music has shifted from aerial folk to rootsy, wind-swept Americana over the course of seven albums, she has created a diverse body of work unified by her unmistakable voice and its ability to deliver powerful, unpredictable songs with bittersweet insight and well-crafted lyricism. Besides winning a Grammy and becoming a member of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, further cementing herself as Nashville royalty, she has been touring in support of American Kid, released in May of last year. Opening for Griffin on the summer leg of the tour is Parker Millsap, a 20-year-old fellow tunesmith based out of Oklahoma known for his blend of blues-rock and thought-provoking storytelling. Millsap may be a little green, but after touring with Patty Griffin, he’ll be more than equipped to follow her example and stay on the ride.

Thu., June 5, 8:15 p.m., 2014

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The Sights

Hey, stop encouraging Eddie Baranek. Oh wait, no one ever did. The epic-throated frontman of the Sights is a rock ‘n’ roll lifer because it’s his job. After years of major label hoo-hah, gonzo touring, and opening/chatting amiably with Robert Plant, the band that died and lived is living yet again, and it’s still the raucous clatter in Baranek’s throat that makes their rock go. They’ve always been doing it right; why stop? With Des Roar.

Sat., June 25, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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Low

Low have been, um, laying low for the last few years, yet their presence abounds. Since 2007’s Drums & Guns, the band has seen several tunes appear in TV shows and movies, they’ve had two(!) songs covered by Robert Plant (“Silver Rider” got a Grammy nomination), and they swapped bass players yet again. It’s good to have them back. The brand new C’Mon swims in the same, minimal, straight-forward, pop-oriented waters as D&G–as opposed to some of their past, overtly arty, “slowcore” jams. With Milagres.

Wed., April 27, 8 p.m., 2011

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Robert Plant & the Band of Joy

One of the few rock geezers to truly put the sex in sexagenarian, Robert Plant reinterprets the music of Appalachia with ghostly dankness on his recent solo album, Band of Joy. His live show’s an unexpected crowd-pleaser, too. The Joy features guitarist Buddy Miller and singer Patty Griffin, and their recent warm-up gig at the Beacon included a ripping trio of Zep covers (alongside Low and Los Lobos tunes) done electric-hillbilly style.

Sat., Jan. 29, 8 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 30, 8 p.m., 2011

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Marc Ribot Needs to Rock

After releasing two critically acclaimed tributes to Cuban roots music with a band called Los Cubanos Postizos (“the Prosthetic Cubans”), downtown/experimental-guitar legend Marc Ribot had a choice to make: “I loved doing that band,” he says. “But it either had to stop being ‘Postizo,’ and I had to go to Cuba and spend 10 years really doing it, or I had to say, ‘Well, this is a project, and it did what I wanted it to do.’ ” We’re sitting across from each other at his kitchen table, having spent the first 45 minutes of our time together talking about the future of the music industry, which Ribot has observed and enriched on numerous sides: his recent work with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss; his contributions to most of Tom Waits’s major work of the last 20 years; collaborations with John Zorn, Elvis Costello, the Black Keys, the Lounge Lizards.

As Los Cubanos would suggest, Ribot’s solo projects reveal his rather schizophrenic approach to genre. He has an ability to exist effortlessly in hybridized worlds, as evinced by his latest adventure, Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, apparently born out of a quasi-freakout regarding his sudden need to rock. “It was one of those blinding, post-9/11 revelations of: ‘Oh my God—I’m going to die someday, and I haven’t directly tried to do a rock band,’ ” he recalls. “And as with many of those blinding revelations, it turned out to be partly valid and partly bullshit.” He laughs.

For Ribot, “rock” is interpreted loosely, the way Deerhoof might consider the term. After toying around with different lineups under the name Mystery Trio, Ribot chose to work with bassist Shahzad Ismaily (Jolie Holland, Will Oldham, Carla Bozulich) and drummer Ches Smith (Xiu Xiu, Secret Chiefs 3), calling the new collective Ceramic Dog. Their debut, Party Intellectuals, goes heavy into electro- experimentation at times, but nestles into funk grooves at others. At the risk of labeling a guy who can’t and shouldn’t be labeled, it’s digi-punk: middle finger raised high, yet anchored in layers of rhythms and noise and brash, overt tones.

No surprise, Ribot’s versatility as a guitarist is the main draw here. Ribot is wild and loose on “Digital Handshake,” yet after a 10-minute onslaught of moog-backed fiddling, the track gives way to a dark, haunting sound during “Bateau.” Latin influences spring up on “For Malena,” yet full-on rock ‘n’ roll progressions anchor the opener, “Break On Through”—yes, the classic Doors song. “I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a version of ‘Break On Through’ that actually breaks on through?’ ” Ribot says.

And yet, as diverse as I’m making this sound—and Intellectuals does have an air of academic rigor to it—Ribot’s existence in multiple worlds has left him with a rather simple view of his own work. It’s probably best to leave it at that, rather than trying to force some kind of deconstruction, especially since Ribot speaks warily of the E-word: “As far as it being ‘eclectic’?” he says. “Well, I prefer to worry about ‘Is it pleasurable?’ or ‘Is it good?’ I like to think it makes some kind of sense.”

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dogs play the Prospect Park Bandshell on June 19 and the Stone on June 21

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Talking with Robert Plant

Robert Plant is ebullient.

For the first time in his life—specifically, day four of the current Raising Sand tour, celebrating his wildly successful 2007 album with bluegrass beacon Alison Krauss—Plant has traced the footsteps of Daniel Boone and passed through the Cumberland Gap. The tall pine timber of the Smokey Mountains. South Central Appalachia, as it were. And such is his current ardor that he is more than willing to philosophize (at length), directly address Led Zeppelin matters (including the rumored reunion tour), and even throw in a hand job metaphor (or three).

“When I was a kid,” he says, “there was a hit record in England by Lonnie Donegan, who was a kind of a skiffle player—which I guess is a sort of a kind of combination of bluegrass and folk. And there was an old song [begins to sing], ‘Cumberland Gap/Cumberland Gap/18 miles to the Cumberland Gap,’ or whatever it was. So when I flew through from south Kentucky last night, I went, ‘Ah, so there we are.’ ” Yes. The American South—Plant revels in it. The kudzu and kitsch. The history and the mystery. And mystery in the South, like the music of the Plant/Krauss collaboration, simultaneously subsists as both sumptuous and simple.

“Once upon a time,” sayas Plant, “all we knew about Elvis was that he sang like a motherfucker. And that was all that mattered. You know, when you gas up and you go to pay inside the gas station and you hear Elvis singing ‘Surrender,’ you know that the mystery of that guy, at that time, was everything. The voice and the mystery and the not knowing. And I think the great thing about anything that you hear over the waves is, you don’t want to know too much, you know?”

In less than an hour of conversation, however, Plant whittles away at regional mystery in favor of appreciation and celebration, leaving in his wake a referential laundry list of influential musicians: Son House, Skip James, Charley Patton, Junior Kimbrough, Howlin’ Wolf, Don Gibson, Mavis Staples, Mable John, the Swan Silvertones, Charlie Rich, Johnny Horton (twice), Townes Van Zandt (twice), Elvis (more than twice), Roscoe Holcomb (more than twice), and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys (both together and separately), among others. Throw in a couple of toss-offs toward Southern staples Church’s Fried Chicken and Cracker Barrel, and you’ve got yourself a rock ‘n’ roll roots picnic where no one goes hungry. “This country,” Robert Plant says, “needs to hear its music.”

He continues: “You know, this motel where I just pulled in to talk to you, there’s a jacket on the wall where the guy’s granddaddy who owns the place got shot by the sheriff for his moonshine thing. And it’s a little valley off the Cumberland Gap, and it’s still all there. It’s grandfathers, grandparents—it’s frontier stuff. And some of the songs that we visit, the performances, you know, it’s all about beginnings.”

The Raising Sand tour begins with a week-long, pre-Europe warm-up: two nights in Louisville followed by Knoxville, Chattanooga, New Orleans (Jazz Fest), and Birmingham. Plant has made this physical pilgrimage before. In the late ’80s, he and fellow Zep alum Jimmy Page sauntered into the Mississippi Delta and came out brandishing Walking Into Clarksdale.”I wrote the lyrics to that,'” he says of the album’s title cut, “because I was just amazed at the otherworldly feeling when you drop south of Memphis onto 61 or 69 or 49 or whatever it is [it’s 61], and you go through Tunica and Rosedale. Because I was looking for ghosts, you know. I was just trying to pick up a thread which is kind of gone.”


Now he’s looking again. In hindsight, pairing a hard-rock legend and the woman with more Grammys in her closet than any female alive might appear a safe bet. But even as Plant calls his partnership with Krauss “a revelation,” it may be because when the pair convened in her Nashville living room, neither could conceive of the actual sound.

“We both actually are discovering each other and each other’s world, which is such a bonus,” Plant says. “I just thought that with a great deal of delicate maneuvering, we might actually find a kind of common ground, and that has been achieved.”

For this, Plant credits “a six-foot, four-inch Texan psychobilly called T-Bone Burnett,” who produced. “Without him,” says Plant, “we have no idea what we would’ve done. I mean, I was looking at Don Gibson as a kind of framework—’Sea of Heartbreak’ and that sort of stuff—and she was looking at Townes Van Zandt a bit, but T-Bone was coming in with some amazing angles. And not only did he have the angles musically, but he had the people that he knew he could rely upon to create the amount of spook that exists within this project. And even more so onstage than on record now.”

Thus, with the aforementioned “psychobilly” in charge, the stage—perhaps the very concert hall itself—evokes a certain physical, atmospheric air. As though it’s 30 minutes after the daily Gulf Coast summer-afternoon thunderstorm. As if the soundtrack for a Wilco documentary suddenly segued into a slasher flick stuck in terminal anticipation.

Those blind beginnings are long gone. Raising Sand, an independent release of 13 punctiliously picked covers, garnered the pair yet another Grammy (Plant’s second and Krauss’s 21st), “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” And before even that first night in the Bluegrass State, the album became not only the biggest commercial success of Krauss’s career, but the bestselling non-Zeppelin Plant disc of the past quarter-century. So, of course, they decided to take that puppy for a walk.”

It’s almost like automatic pilot to think that there is a tour that goes with an album,” says Plant. “I mean, there are so many situations that I wouldn’t want to tour in now, because I may have visited certain areas of music too often to actually be excited.”

Yes, Led Heads, he’s talking to you. Though he’s willing to throw his more metallic fans a Zoso bone (or three): The Plant/Krauss set list often includes reworked versions of “Black Dog,” “When the Levee Breaks,” and “The Battle of Evermore.” “There are certain songs which will lend themselves to an absolute, stripped-down situation,” Plant says. “And the thing about my singing is, I’m really, really working on moving from style to style within the show, you know. I mean, I think it’s such a great challenge. That’s where I’m really getting off, because I’m doing so many things differently. And still being whatever I was.”

The tour,” he says, “just became something to get excited about once we had a personality. But, you know, touring for the sake of touring, for me, after all these years, is just pointless. I have to be excited.”

Yep, still looking at you, Zep fans. And just in case you need more: “You can’t just borrow the Stones’ plane,” Plant says. “It’s got to have a creative kernel of endeavor and whatever it is, otherwise it won’t work, because Zep was about that.

“I mean, if you want the quick tug,” he continues, “if you want the $5 massage or the happy ending, you know exactly how to get that. That’s a pointless exercise. For me, I just want to do stuff where at the end of the night, I can turn and look at the people I’m working with and go, ‘That was not just an achievement—it was one of the most heart-rending experiences I’ve had.’ And that’s what happened to me night before last.”

The “night before last,” Plant and Krauss (and T-Bone and company) played their second show in Louisville, which seems to have provided Plant with everything he could ask from musical roadwork.

“It was almost as if we were, you know, on laughing gas,” he says, “because it all worked and it swung like crazy and the stage volume was very, very excellent for what we were trying to do. I mean, you can hear absolutely everything. You can even hear the skin of the banjo, you know. I mean, it’s like—it’s unearthly at times. Something happened that was much more intense and much more rewarding than any of us had expected. We found that we were going into a place that none of us had been before.

“Obviously,” Robert Plant concludes, “this is just the beginning.”

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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand

Somewhere deep in this atmospheric collaboration between the latent Zeppelin frontman and the ambassadorial bluegrass ingénue, a feeling sneaks in that’s as ominous and captivatingly spine-tingling as the second act of an Elmore Leonard western: It’s too late to find the trail out of the canyon, the canteens are empty, and, much as Raising Sand‘s title intimates, the winds are coming up. And though Alison Krauss and Robert Plant make strange bedfellows indeed, the result is an engrossing, powerfully evocative collection.

In hindsight, the first whiff of this is the lolling Roland Salley cover, “Killing the Blues,” when the singers reach for the tune’s nostalgic roundhouse in a transcendent harmony as tight as hospital corners: “Somebody said they saw me/Swinging the world by the tail.”

But the dusky terrain they evoke doesn’t owe its richness exclusively to the puzzlingly perfect fit of the grizzled rocker and the shiny-faced Pollyanna. Producer T-Bone Burnett flaunts his typical curatorial genius with a whole set of “have we met before?” tunes by Sam Phillips, Tom Waits, and Townes Van Zandt—all perfectly tailored by session personnel and expert performances by drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Marc Ribot. Even when Raising Sand plays to the distinct talents of its star attractions—Krauss stepping out on the honky-tonked “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson,” Plant slithering through the sleazy Benny Spellman number “Fortune Teller”—its close collaborations, like the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” or “Stick with Me Baby,” achieve something rare: a trip to a place that’s utterly foreign, oddly familiar, and deeply gratifying.

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Whole Lotta Universal Love

This box makes a strong case that Robert Plant’s favorite Led Zeppelin song is “Kashmir.” Its killer combination of big stomping rhythms (courtesy Phil Collins at first, but every drummer who followed throughout the ’80s and ’90s emulated his gated thwacking), massively reverbed guitars, one-handed keyboards, and wailing vocals turns up on nearly all of the eight solo albums collected here. From 1982’s Pictures at Eleven on, the formula was there. As for the ninth of these Nine Lives, there’s not much Middle Eastern pomp-metal flavor on the EP of ’50s rock covers credited to the Honeydrippers, of course, but that was a slightly baffling side trip. Even with Led Zep, Plant’s vision of rock tended to roll like a square-wheeled tank, and as a vocalist, he’s never had the showbiz smirk that made David Lee Roth’s similar, contemporaneous Crazy From the Heat work so well. (Indeed, Roth succeeded by adding the Jimmy Durante influence Plant apparently doesn’t know he’s missing.)

All but Nine Lives‘ final two albums emphasize thump and clang, with the suppleness that John Paul Jones brought to even Zep’s most concrete-shoed grooves almost entirely absent. Still, there’s plenty to like here, especially the discs with the least Led in ’em, and particularly 1990’s underrated Manic Nirvana. Possibly the most interesting part of the Robert Plant story goes overlooked here, though: the years between 1993’s Fate of Nations and 2002’s
Dreamland
, during which time he reunited with Jimmy Page to reinvent the back catalog and, more importantly, formed a new band that’s actually a band. The Strange Sensation, heard on discs eight and nine ( Dreamland and 2005’s Mighty Rearranger), features a guitarist (among other things) who’s worked with Jah Wobble and the Tuareg blues-rock band Tinariwen, and a keyboardist and drummer formerly of Portishead. The music they make is globe-trotting rock, but not in a colonialist Paul Simon way—again, we’re back to “Kashmir” as a model, with Plant letting the sand blow him this way and that. Nine Lives may initially indicate that as a solo act Plant peaked early, but there are plenty of glorious moments the whole way along.