Above: Plant and Krauss get “In the Mood.”
By Joel Francis
Robert Plant may never outlive the shadow of his onetime partner Jimmy Page, but Tuesday night at Starlight he showed unimaginable growth with his unlikely new muse, bluegrass legend Allison Krauss.
The pair’s 23 song, two-hour set explored nearly every facet of American music with a subtly, nuance and beauty Plant’s former four-piece could only dream of. From a rockabilly cover of Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone” to Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” the pair’s voices waltzed in perfect, egoless harmony.
Clad in all black, Plant slinked around the stage like a cat burglar before spontaneously hopping into a spry dance step. Krauss stood in contrast in a bright floral dress, sporting a wide smile and, frequently, a violin on her shoulder.
“Black Dog” was reworked with a banjo delivering the main riff as Plant and Krauss’s voices circled each other on the call-and-response chorus. A spellbinding reading of “Killing the Blues” in the encore set may have been the ultimate demonstration of their musical synergy.
The hammer of the gods may have been missing, but classics like “When the Levee Breaks” (to which Plant snuck a snippet of Bob Dylan’s “Girl of the North Country”) and “Black Country Woman” had plenty of thunder. A cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin'” outrocked ‘em all, though. A harrowing tale of addiction much in the same vein as John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” one could feel the symptoms of withdrawal dripping from the stage as Plant unleashed a couple of his trademark primal wails.
It would be easy for a rocker of Plant’s status to command the stage and bring a captivating performance, but he was very much a team player. He turned the stage over to Krauss for a stunning a cappella reading of “Down to the River to Pray” (boosted by the stellar backing vocals of guitarist Buddy Miller and fiddle/banjo/mandolin player Stuart Duncan) and a haunting version of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose.” Even bandleader T-Bone Burnett, producer of Krauss and Plant’s “Raising Sand” album, the “O Brother Where Art There Soundtrack” got the spotlight for a song.
Other highlights included a chipper “Gone Gone Gone” performed in front of a shimmering gold curtain that helped the song feel like an autumn road trip. Plant’s solo hit “In the Mood” was married to the Irish melody of “Matty Groves” and was a welcome surprise. “The Battle of Evermore” was the rare Zeppelin number that wasn’t radically reworked.
The assembly of Miller, Duncan, Burnett, acoustic bass player Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose defy the term “backing band.” Their collective resumes include work with Waits, Elvis Costello, Beck, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, to name a few. Amazing songwriters and musicians in their own right, each of these guys are more than capable of mesmerizing solo performances. Together, they might be the greatest band of ringers ever assembled.
The wealth of material worked up for this tour begs for proper release on an encore collaboration or concert release. The entire evening was a treat that deserves to be relived as many times as possible. Hopefully the tour of a lifetime will be preserved for even longer.