Robert Plant is 61. He’s been singing and touring internationally — and, presumably, enjoying the lifestyle that comes with that — for more than 40 years. But, unlike any of his contemporaries I can think of, his voice doesn’t sound depleted in the least.
The Zeppelin-era Plant — the original, shrieking, shirtless rock ‘n’ roll front man who spawned so many Axls — is mostly gone. He’s still got those golden locks, which, with a beard and a broader face, make him look leonine. But he wears shirts these days, and though he can still summon the caterwauls, as he did several times on Thursday night, he’s mostly graduated to a vocal approach that shows off a range that was always there, but never so nuanced.
But this wasn’t a Robert Plant solo gig. It was the second date on the debut tour for a reconstituted Band of Joy, a name Plant revived from the group he and John Bonham formed pre-Zep. This time around, Plant followed the pattern established by his winning collaboration with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett and populated the band with players well-versed in Americana in all its deep-rooted rawness, many of them genre stars in their own right: guitarist/producer Buddy Miller; ethereal vocalist Patty Griffin; crack multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott on banjo, guitar, mandolin and pedal steel; bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino.
The group opened with a tense, folk-flecked version of Plant’s “Down by the Sea,” from his 2007 solo album, “Fate of the Nations,” which provided an early opportunity for Miller and Griffin to win over the audience — Miller, with sawing guitar work that made everyone, at least in this context, forget about Jimmy Page, and Griffin with a thin, but immensely affecting, even chill-bump-inducing voice. A rollicking cover of Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance,” from Band of Joy’s forthcoming album, came next, followed by a slightly dissonant version of the Plant/Krauss barnburner “Please Read the Letter,” an earworm I haven’t been able to shake since I first heard it.
Other songs from the upcoming album followed, including Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards” (some publications speculated before the tour started that it might be a Radiohead cover) and the Townes Van Zandt lament “Harm’s Swift Way.”
The gospel medley of “Oh What A Beautiful City/Wade In The Water” offered an early, powerful showcase of the group vocally, with Plant, Griffin, Scott and Miller all taking turns singing lead. Elsewhere, three-part harmonies were the norm and four-part weren’t rare. If Plant ever held back (surely he needs to rest now and again?), Griffin and co. were always there to preserve the momentum.
Zeppelin fans weren’t left in the dark. Band of Joy offered its take on “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Houses of the Holy” and “Rock and Roll,” usually with Scott’s pedal steel standing in for Jimmy Page’s monster riffs. Which is an awesome way to tweak your legacy if you’re Plant, though my wife did watch a couple of recalcitrant Zeppelin fans leaving in a huff in the lobby. “What’s this bluegrass and soul shit?” one of them said to the other. “Why’re they messing up the good songs?”
More good songs that might’ve made traditionalists’ skin crawl: a menacing version of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” with the stage bathed in red light and Plant prancing like he’d had practice; and the closing hymn “Good Night,” another opportunity for Band of Joy to show off its vocal prowess — and sense of humor, adding nightmare-ish lyrics of children-eating monsters to the lullaby.
The only misstep: A fairly close reading of Low’s dark, indie song “Monkey,” with Plant deadening his voice to mimic the original’s vocals of unease and alienation. It was the only moment where it felt like Plant was playing dress up with someone else’s material, rather than making it his own.
It was a small hiccup that stood out only because otherwise Plant’s voice, augmented by an excellent supporting cast, sounded so startlingly bright and strong that, for one night at least, it made the idea of a rock god not seem hyperbolic at all.