Thursday, in one of the season’s most anticipated concerts, Robert Plant, the iconic voice of Led Zeppelin, comes to Robinson Center Music Hall. After piling up Grammy gold last year for “Raising Sand,” his critical and commercial hit project with Allison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett, Plant’s headed to town with new collaborators in advance of a September 14 album release. He’s calling the group and the album Band of Joy, a name resurrected from his pre-Zeppelin band with John Bonham. This time around, his band mates include singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, producer and guitarist Buddy Miller, multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, bassist Byron House and percussionist Marco Giovino. The album, like “Raising Sand,” is another dip into the Great American Songbook, with songs ranging from “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” to Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance” to a pair of tracks from Minnesota indie rockers Low.
I spoke with Plant on Monday about shifting styles, Townes Van Zandt, Helena and more.
How’s it going?
Excellent. I finally got back to my ancient home away from home. I’m staring across the Mississippi River. So, yeah, I’m rockin’.
The tour begins tomorrow night there in Memphis. So you’ve got some time to tour around?
Well, you know, I’ve got some stuff to do here and I’ve got some friends to see. I met Elvis many, many years ago when I was in Zep, so I got to know people who were around him too, and they know people who were around Jerry Lee. And I’ve got good connection with friends down in Clarksdale, Mississippi, too.
In a lot of ways your solo career has been if not about defying expectations then at least jumping around a lot stylistically. So I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that you’re not following your massively successful collaboration with Alison Krauss and T-Bone Burnett with another record with Krauss and Burnett?
You shouldn’t be surprised. And you wouldn’t be surprised to know that sooner or later they’ll be a Union Station record out and then there’ll be another summer and another winter and there’ll be another Plant and Krauss record out, I guess.
This is a wonderful world of music, especially with great hindsight and more and more knowledge and a little more maturity. It means that so many things are possible, even though you kind of lose the great panoramic vista of enormous success that comes or doesn’t come. Every dog has his day, and my day is a different color quite regularly. My plan is to stimulate, so that I can sing with true meaning. I can’t bluff it. To be a singer and just to repeat everything that he is and has been, I’d be a hell of a one trick pony, so I can’t do that.
If you get together with people and you can make stuff work in four hours, you know you’re on course for making a blinding collection of songs in a new zone. That has a very familiar ring because that’s what happened in 1968, 1969 and 1970 and on through the Zeppelin world. We never went back to the same spot.
On paper, though, this project looks similar to working with Burnett and Krauss: you, plus a really respected roots producer in Buddy Miller and a really respected female folk vocalist in Patty Griffin. But early reports indicate it’s a departure, in terms of its sound, from “Raising Sand.”
There’s a lot more going on in the nether regions. It’s a punchy record. It drives a lot. It’s a little to The Electric Prunes, I guess. Occasionally, there’s enough spook there to think you might be getting ready for a Cocteau Twins gig. Buddy wasn’t involved in the recording of “Raising Sand.” But he played with us throughout the tour. It was that relationship that I struck up with him at that time and the great dynamism of music — the love it all — that got us into this new zone. It’s really powerful.
You’ve got a really eclectic assortment of songs on the album — from acts as diverse as Los Lobos, The Kelly Brothers, Townes Van Zandt and Low. Can you talk about the song selection? Did you and Miller pick the songs you’d cover together?
I’ve been carrying Low songs in my car for about eight or nine years. That “Great Destroyer” album I used to play it a lot. I thought it’s quite removed from where I’ve been going, but I know Buddy’s got that spook stuff covered. Around Christmas time, I said, ‘Let’s touch it and see what we could do.’ It was at that point that he suggested that Patty could come along and really make the thing work. She was in Nashville and came by and tried it out and it was a very strong and sensuous vocal link. It’s really just what we want. It’s great.
Let’s talk about some of the other song choices. You’ve got The Kelly Brothers.
Yeah, there’s some amazing DVDs that you can get, something like seven or eight DVDs of stuff that’s maybe not very mainstream from that period. Maybe a little OV Wright or ZZ Hill and the Kelly Brothers are there right in the middle of it. It’s just a great period of music.
I saw some YouTube footage of them. They had really fantastic pompadours.
That’s right. And the bolero jackets! We all wanted to look like that, but a white boy from Worcestershire with spots —
Has trouble pulling that off?
Yeah, it doesn’t work really. Frayed jeans and beatnik sandals were a bit more apropos. Later on, I did get into pointy-toe shoes, and I don’t seem to have left that behind.
Can you talk about the Townes Van Zandt song, “Harms Swift Way”?
It’s kind of drifted around. His — I’m not going to say “reading” because that’s really where we know we’ve gone right up our own sphincter — his music was dramatic at times, sometimes lost and sometimes hugely found, and this was, maybe, according to one aficionado, the last thing he ever wrote. It’s not a very happy tune in its original form. And basically it’s not happy-ed up now, but at least it’s got a driving beat and sounds like it just dropped off “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”
I know the album is to be called “Band of Joy,” but are you and Miller and Griffin and others also Band of Joy?
Yeah, everything is Band of Joy.
Why did you decide to revive the project?
Because my original Band of Joy, which was right up to meeting Jimmy Page, was like nothing mattered. You just had to get the music right — at the expense of everything. There was a very buccaneer approach to it. John Bonham and myself drove the band, but we were ably supported at that time by musicians who felt that the most important thing on the planet was to get it out and express it rather than follow Herman’s Hermits and The Tremeloes or Freddie and the Dreamers into some American teen scene moment. It was a kind of buccaneer band. I felt that I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m singing good. These people are amazing. I find that I’m learning way more by being with these people. Every day is a day when I learn something fresh.
What should people expect on the tour?
Tunes from everywhere. Tunes from 1968 in a studio in London. Tunes from 1988 in a studio in London. Tunes from 2008 in a studio in Nashville. And it’s not sedate.
So you’ll be doing “Raising Sand” and Zeppelin songs?
There’s room for “squeezing my lemon” and “baby, baby.” Also, “I got a woman with plenty of money/She’s got the money and I’ve got the honey” doesn’t seem like a bad thing to sing. It’s not too challenging cerebrally anyway.
This’ll be your first time performing in Arkansas, right?
No. I was in Little Rock about 10 years ago. I remember driving in from West Helena.
I was going to ask about that. I knew you’d been in Helena and sat in at KFFA with Sonny Payne.
That’s right. Nicely and quite righteously for me and him there was no connection with me being a musician*, I was just a passerby. That made it so much better for me because I could talk about things like the last Sonny Boy sessions on Arhoolie before he died.
You should come back in the fall. The blues fest they have in Helena is going to be bigger than usual. They’ve got BB King and Dr. John and Taj Mahal.
Oh really. How did they manage to do that? It’s just on the levee there on Main Street in downtown Helena, right?
It’s sort of struggled in years past, and they really struggled when the company who owns the name to King Biscuit took it back and they had to rename it the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival, which, obviously, doesn’t have the same ring to it.
You know what’s really sad is when you come over the bridge on Highway 49 there used to be years ago a sign that said “Welcome to West Helena, the home of Sonny Boy Williamson” that fell in the grass and no one had the bloody propensity to put it back.**
I was in Tutwiler [Miss.] this year to unveil a plaque for WC Handy, and this husband and wife came up to me from Cornwall in the UK and they were looking for clues. I think these things are part of the heritage of an area that can use as much tourist dollar as possible.
I’d be a bad journalist if I didn’t ask: Is there any chance for another Led Zeppelin reunion?
You know, sometimes there’s a hell of a lot of interference on the line.
[Laughs] Fair enough.
*The story goes that, when asked by Payne what he did in England, Plant said, “I play a bit of tennis.”
**I called Delta Cultural Center director Katie Harrington in Helena to ask about the sign. She couldn’t think of what Plant might be talking about, but said that a marker for the Mississippi Blues Heritage Trail that references Sonny Boy Williamson and “King Biscuit Time” sits outside the DCC. She added, “Helena is paying more attention to its past, preserving what it can, saving what it can.”