Robert Plant‘s post-Led Zeppelin musical journey has been consistently difficult to categorise. No longer backed by Page, Bonham and Jones, Plant surrounds himself with musicians from every ilk, and takes on musical styles that range wide and far. On Band Of Joy, his first release since 2007’s Grammy-winning roots rock collaboration with Alison Krauss, Plant revisits the approach of his old band – no, not Zeppelin – and leads his new group through swampy musical territory that is at turns brooding, swooning and raucous.
Plant originally formed Band Of Joy with drummer John Bonham in 1967 before taking on Jimmy Page to form The New Yardbirds and, eventually, Led Zeppelin. Plant’s new album borrows his old band’s name, and it also reinvigorates the old sort of teenage approach to creating music. Of the new album, Plant has said: “In the Band Of Joy, when I was 17, I was playing everybody else’s stuff and moving it around, and it’s kind of… time to reinvoke that attitude and sentiment.”
For Band Of Joy, Plant recruited Raising Sand band-mate Buddy Miller to co-produce. As for the band, he’s got an expert cast around him, and together they weave from sound to sound, teasing out surf-rock nuances here, and leaning back into Appalachian subtlety there. Multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott plays guitar, mandolin, lap steel, and banjo; Byron House plays bass; and Marco Giovino provides multi-layered percussion. But most impressive is country singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, who plays the part of Plant’s vocal counterpoint stunningly.
While his appearance – his face surrounded as it is by telltale cascades of blond-gray curls – may be looking a bit road-wearied and hardened by long-running rock ‘n’ roll decades, Plant’s voice sounds transported from Zeppelin’s heyday. Perhaps his application of his ability to hit the high notes has gotten a bit more judicious in his older, perhaps wiser, age, but Plant has not allowed his tenor to be ground into gravel after years of use and abuse.
The album opens with the stunning first single, Angel Dance, a reimagining of a song by Los Lobos. Appalachian hill stomping meets Middle Eastern tonality to crushing effect, whilst Plant groans and invokes angels, revealing his vocal prowess from the outset. House Of Cards sounds like it could well be a leftover from the Raising Sand sessions with Griffin more than filling in for Krauss; indeed, her vocal harmony makes the song, lending it emotion and immediacy.
Central Two-O-Nine is a jangling Appalachian travelling song complete with chain-gang background vocals and minor-key mandolin-banjo interplay. You Can’t Buy Me Love is an electrified, blues-driven rave-up that smacks of early ’60s pop, right down to the frantic surf-rock guitar solo. Country-gospel vocals and Scott’s braying pedal steel cast the Kelly Brothers soul classic Falling In Love Again in a backwoods church feel – in a good way.
Band Of Joy is an excellent follow-up to Raising Sand. Where its predecessor found Plant operating in a finely-tuned genre, Band Of Joy gives him an opportunity to explore his influences, and to colour a few choice odds and ends from the rock ‘n’ roll canon with his indelible mark. The closer, Even This Shall Pass Away, drops the curtain with a raw combination of pounding, funky drums and squalling electric guitar. The whole thing is joyously muddy, but when the instruments drop out to let Plant wail the refrain alone, the effect can only be described as mystical.