Ravinia: Robert Pland and the Band of Joy

Walking in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Robert Plant
Robert Plant

Robert Plant is an interesting choice for the Ravinia Festival.  On the one hand, he and his bandmates Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones defined behemoth self-indulgent rock in the ‘70s as Led Zeppelin.  However, he’s now surrounded himself with massive names in country, folk and bluegrass and creates music that is, if not calm, complacent.  His Band of Joy now consists of some legends of country music: Buddy Miller, who’s played with everyone from Steve Earl to Emmylou Harris; Grammy award-winner Patty Griffin; and Darrell Scott, who’s one of Nashville’s great session musicians, and an accomplished songwriter in his own right.  Honestly, I know Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin better than I know Robert Plant.  So it was very exciting for me to see them play.

But I’m getting sidetracked; the theme I’ve chosen for this piece is self-indulgent rocker turns self-reflective folker.  Which admittedly isn’t exactly fair.  It’s true that the self-control of this band when compared to Led Zeppelin is the self-control of St. Francis compared to Napoleon.  But there’s still some hard rocking going on, some tasteful soloing, some ass-kicking crunch to the guitars, from time to time.  And the set also comprised of maybe 1/3 Zep covers.  But here’s what was nice about that: they basically started from scratch.  They weren’t so much rehashings as reimaginings.  “Black Dog” was still heavy and driving, but they dropped the complex, shifting time signatures in favor of simple 4/4, the iconic riff totally absent, replaced by a riptide of pulsating guitar.  It was, in short, glorious.

Really, I knew this group of musicians had me when, during the first song, Darrell Scott, who was playing a banjo from maybe 1920, bent over his pedal steel to add its texture to the song.  At that moment, I was hooked, and willing to go wherever they wanted to take me.  And they took me – all of us – on a grand journey through folk, country, rockabilly, right up into rock and roll.  The harmonies of Patty Griffin and Darrell Scott were unworldly.  They seemed to transcend this plain of existence and usher the audience into a new form of being.  Buddy Miller proved why he’s played with so many greats over the past few years: he can do whatever’s needed, perfectly.  You need some quiet, background texture?  He can do that.  You need some rock and roll rhythm guitar?  Easy.  You need some tasteful riffing?  Of course.  You need some balls-out, wild-eyed, Rust Never Sleeps-vintage Neil Young-style face-meltage?  Yeah, he’s got that covered, too.  Not only that, he’s got an entirely cool collection of obscure and awesome guitars.  I won’t get into details, but suffice it to say, I geeked out way more than once.

Really, the only thing that detracted from this concert was the audience.  The reason for this is simple: it consisted of entirely too many Led Zeppelin fans; these people are bro’d-out frat-bags to the max.  There were more frat boys, past, present, and future, than I’ve seen since I graduated college.  And there were the girls who like them.  To give you some idea, there were two girls, maybe 30, a couple rows in front of us, who allowed their small children to wear hats and glasses that flashed colors constantly; this was something of a distraction.  There was a drunkard who shouted “Thank you!  Thank you, Robert Plant!” after about every second song.  There were plenty of people who didn’t understand that, because everyone had seats and there was no open dance floor, you should probably sit down so you don’t block the view of the people behind you.  It was by far the rudest audience I have witnessed in a very long time.  And that includes the crowd for Arctic Monkeys in Detroit, who could get a little physical – but that’s just standard fare for a real rock and roll concert in this day and age.

That said, the music was enjoyable, in spite of it all.  The final song from the encore was beautiful: all six people on stage put down their instruments and sang a capella.  Robert Plant has proven that he can and will be an enduring musical force with much more to offer than grandiose dick metaphors.  And hopefully this iteration of his Band of Joy sticks around for years to come.

Highly recommended

Will Fink

Reviewed on 6.16.11

For more information, visit Ravinia’s website.