Robert Plant/Alison Krauss, Sharon Little,
the Greek Theater, June 24.
By John Payne
Photos by Timothy Norris
It wasn’t all that strange when Led Zep’s iconic hip-swiveler Robert Plant chose to do the duo thing with bluegrass-country diva Alison Krauss. Their musical connections make easy sense, first of all – Plant’s Celtic roots and Krauss’ in Appalachian music were long ago tightly intertwined, and obviously form the basis for much American popular song. And Plant’s a notorious student of roots Americana, which formed the building blocks of Led Zep and much of his solo material. The way I hear it, Plant is the one who sought out a meeting with Krauss, with the idea of collaboration. Whatever the case, it was an inspired and, as it turns out, quite resonant notion, as their recent duo album, Raising Sand, and performance at the Greek Theater demonstrated.
Backed by a five-piece band that included several legends of the Americana scene, including guitarists Buddy Miller and T-Bone Burnett, Plant and Krauss paced their set slowly, deliberately, with a pervasive emphasis on a ‘50s twangy moodiness on several tunes, heightened by drummer Jay Bellerose’s alternately low-boiling and explosive percussive work. The vocal duets on the first song, “Rich Woman,” from Raising Sand, hinted that Plant’s voice would dominate Krauss’ – a puzzling thought, since Plant is a very thin-toned singer – but subsequent songs and solo turns by Krauss showed that she can more than hold her own in the vocal stakes, and is, technically at least, certainly far superior to Plant.
A kind of humor abounded in the way Plant and Krauss’ great backing band explored and seemed to savor the nuances of some very intriguing arrangements; the sound itself often produced an atmosphere of noirish chills, achieved via the surging dynamics emphasized in the group’s performance, truly as if they were painting pictures with their instruments. The set was characterized by a very considered and, well, adult approach; they kept up an amazingly measured pace throughout the night, making for an unusual sort of simmering emotional quality that made the infrequent bursts into louder volumes all the more thrilling. On “Leave My Woman Alone,” the band played sprightly and strident, with all this ‘50s slap-back slopped atop, and Krauss’ fiddle sawing away with a nuanced funky flair. The vintage sound seemed to suit them all just fine, and even worked well in a cover of Led Zep’s “Black Dog,” which conveyed a kind of menacingly folksy air that was pretty damn interesting – and funny.
But then, the band had some real savory material to work with; as well, Plant’s own unusually good taste in instrumental settings no doubt played a part, such as the fabulously protracted version of “I’m in the Mood” from Plant’s first solo album, here layed out richly spacious and unhurried, as if he and the band were playing it for their own pleasure and pace. Plant was affable and low-key, affecting a Nashville twang to tip his hat to Led Zep in “Black Country Woman”; hearing it done with banjo was not just humorous, it showed off the strength of the song’s foundation, which allows it to be performed in such wildly varying settings. Plant also did a fair pass through “Fortune Teller,” popularized by the Stones, yes, but written by Plant’s revered Allen Toussaint.
Plant and Krauss sang together and took a few solo turns, the upshot of which might be said to be that Krauss is a stunningly gifted musician, a singer of enormously refined craft and purity of tone, and a fiddle player of terrific style and swing; her masterfully supple take on the ghostly “Trampled Rose” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” from Raising Sand were downright stately.
Overall, it was night offering genuine, deep musical satisfactions, not least for its refreshingly calm, quietly exploratory air. And with this great band, at least, Plant and Krauss have only just scratched the potential surface.
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Singer Sharon Little opened with a nice little set of tunes that showed off her white-girl soul sistah vocal chops to good advantage. A sassily agile and adept vocalist, she most interestingly has a voice that’s instantly, and pleasingly, familiar.
-- John Payne