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Review: Robert Plant Brings His Grand Band of Joy to the World

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To the assembled masses who didn't get the memo that we've graduated to the 21st century, this experience probably felt like a '60s flashback.

After all, there he was in all his golden god glory, singing his heart out at the Fillmore while dudes in Led Zeppelin tees were freaking out, man, to the extreme that a couple of them had to be carried out on stretchers.

Only it's the spring of 2011 and, in the immortal words of Blue Oyster Cult, "This ain't the Summer of Love."

So when Robert Plant opens with "Hey, hey mama, said the way you move/ gonna make you sweat/ gonna make you groove," he's so understated, phrasing it with so much style and grace, you feel like you're living in another dimension.

"Welcome to another spectacular evening in the mystery of the great Band of Joy," a gentlemanly Plant announces to a hearty Denver crowd after a mellow but melodious version of "Black Dog."

fillmore marque

And spectacular it was. Like an evangelist leading a spiritual revival, Plant controls his congregation and -- for a moment -- makes them forget about Page, Jones and Bonham. If necessity is the mother of invention, Plant is the father of reinvention.

In assembling Band of Joy for an album of splendid and eclectic down-home covers that was released by Rounder Records last September, Plant takes the next logical step in his chameleon-like progression. "British Rock Royalty," "Tall Cool One," "Raising Sandman" and now "Bundle of Joy" spreading the gospel according to Reverend Robert.

The all-star Bandmates of Joy who lent their formidable talents to the album were on hand April 27 in Denver, and Plant made sure to show off those same skill sets.

BOJ_albumFrom guitarist Buddy Miller, the Nashville recording stalwart who co-produced the album with Plant, to multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott to the comely Patty Griffin, this production that also included Byron House (bass) and Marco Giovino ("kicking ass" on drums, Plant said) was like experiencing divine intervention.

Living in the Houses of the Holy, indeed.

A well-rounded, fast-moving set that consisted of 16 numbers plus two encores was punctuated by five tunes from the album (the glorious harmonies lifting Richard Thompson's "House of Cards" and the moving interplay of Low's "Silver Rider" were stunning). Countrified versions of six Led Zeppelin tunes were delivered respectfully (not in the corn-pone Pickin' On Zeppelin way either), and with such flavorful touches that a rarity like "Black Country Woman" sounded almost unrecognizable.

With looser jeans and tighter arrangements, Plant moves a bit slower but still displays the same charisma and gallantry of his previous life. Thankfully, he doesn't totally ignore those prancing "Dancing Days."

A wry guy whose nod is as good as a hoodwink, Plant keeps his audience wondering if he should be taken literally.

"I was doing some calculating backstage because I've got a bit of OCD. It's been 13,781 days since the first time I played here," Plant said about his rare return to Denver's rarefied air, causing a wild reaction from the crowd just four songs into the set. "It's nothing to cheer about; it's been a precipitous journey and I guess this song ('House of Cards') may have some kind of link to it all."

Maybe his math is as fuzzy as his memory. Those 13,781 days turn out to be almost 38 years, and purists already know Led Zeppelin first appeared in Denver in 1968, not 1973. For those who dare to care, hard evidence can be found at ledzeppelin.com, which includes a review of the band's show at Denver's Auditorium Arena on December 26, 1968.

As the opening act for Vanilla Fudge and Spirit, Led Zeppelin's "full routine in mainstream rock" was "done powerfully, gutsily, unifiedly, inventively and swingingly," wrote Rocky Mountain News music critic Thomas MacCluskey in a story headlined: "'Rock' Concert Is Real Groovy." He wasn't quite as kind to their lead singer, calling Plant "a cut above average in style, but no special appeal in sound." Of course, the arena, the newspaper and the band no longer exist, and the songs don't remain the same.

Yet, Plant's still here, and if he chooses to forget that piece of history, who are we to question him. Anyone claiming to have total recall of the '60s probably has no idea what they ate for breakfast anyway.

Just remember this. The Golden Lion still roars, even if he's more wiser-than-wilder in this animal kingdom. His conscious decision to feature Miller (singing his wife Julie's "Somewhere Trouble Don't Go," which also included a bluesy Plant on harp), Scott (Porter Wagoner's "A Satisfied Mind") and Griffin ("Ocean of Tears") during this rollicking revue while unassumingly fading into the background is part genius, part generous.

Band of Joy sing

From left, Buddy Miller, Byron House, Marco Giovino and Robert Plant perform as members of Band of Joy at the Fillmore in Denver.

Miller is steeped in the Americana tradition. But his rip-roaring electric guitar riffs (taking the otherwise domesticated "Please Read The Letter" to soaring heights) and previous collaborations with Griffin, Plant's Raising Sand pal Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and other phenomenal femme fatales, have made him a cool commodity. Even if his white hair does make him look older than the sixties-something Plant.

Robert Plant handsDescribed by Plant as "songwriter extraordinaire, great voice and a helluva chef," Scott brings an authentic baritone and heavy instrumental artillery to the roster. Standing stage left with Griffin and wearing a gray beret matching his closely cropped beard, Scott (left with Plant) was the night's most versatile player. From mandolin (Los Lobos' "Angel Dance"), pedal steel and electric guitar ("Houses of the Holy") to banjo ("Black Country Woman") and bouzouki ("Ramble On," at nearly 8 1/2 minutes, the night's longest and most rousing number), this Grammy-nominated performer and songwriter goes from Southern comfort to Eastern intrigue at the drop of a pick.

The real revelation on this night was Griffin, though. Her credentials -- including a Grammy this year for Downtown Church (Best Traditional Gospel Album) are undeniable, but it's nice to see this former Flaming Red Lilith Lady break out of her latest conservative folk mold to become a girl who just wants to have fun.

"She's hot," the young couple shouted in unison after Griffin ripped through "Ocean of Tears." If they weren't already convinced by Griffin's soulful, sultry voice, her hippy-hippy-shake-and-shimmy moves in a black leather dress and red go-go boots undoubtedly won over the rest of the house, its temperature rising considerably.

Plant Scott GriffinGriffin (right with Plant) seemed to be enjoying herself the most. Her infectious smile was as instrumental as the mandolin she played on the twangy "Misty Mountain Hop" ("As you can see, it's a country folk band," joked Plant) and she was properly reverential while sharing duet duties with Plant on the sweet show-closing ballad "Your Long Journey."

Still, there's no question why everyone was there. While Rod Stewart coasts through The Great American Songbook and Roger Daltrey struggles to keep the spirit of Tommy alive, the voice of England's hardest-rocking export since The Who keeps looking for new ground to break while reinterpreting the songs he and other legendary lyricists continue to create.

"We're gonna move things around a little bit," Plant said before the first encore. "We were gonna do some very serious stuff from Leonard Cohen but ... "

If he was kidding, the dazed-and-confused crowd didn't react until hearing the opening notes of "Rock And Roll." No surprise, there. Delighted spectators sang along to a four-minute version that was played fairly straight, except for the "Chattanooga Choo Choo"-like swing melodies and Scott's pedal-to-the-metal steel.

If there was one complaint, it's that the evening ended way before the bewitching hour, even with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars kicking off the festivities at 8 o'clock sharp. Just leave it to the night's international man of mystery and his joyful band of guest musicians to keep the rest of us guessing.

Planting one more seed of doubt, this front-seat Joy Rider decided to leave the audience with one head-scratching send-off instead of a third encore: "Come see us again soon; It's always changing."

What's changing? The year? The month? The set list? The lineup?

Maybe those questions will be answered as the tour heads toward summer, with a headlining date to close the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 19 one of the last remaining American shows before a trek through Europe.

By then, one true Brit and three Nashville cats will be bringing a whole lotta love and joy to the rest of the world. They won't even try to burst your time bubble.

Denver concert photos by Michael Bialas.

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