By Eleni P. Austin
Robert Plant has always possessed a restless spirit. He was born deep in the Black Country of West Bromwich, Staffordshire in 1948 and grew up in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. He became obsessed with Elvis Presley at an early age. By his teens, that passion had been transferred to American Blues, particularly Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson.
Although he originally planned the conventional career path of an accountant, Plant abandoned his studies and left home at age 16. He became a part of the thriving Midlands Blues scene. He began singing with the Crawling King Snakes, a Blues combo that included drummer (and fellow Black Country boy), John Bonham. Plant went on to front Band Of Joy. That group went through myriad line-ups. Their third incarnation included John Bonham.
By 1968, ex-Yardbird (and formidable session guitarist), Jimmy Page, along with multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones were looking to form a new band. Originally Page wanted Blues-belter Terry Reid to handle vocals. But Reid had just begun a promising solo career, so he suggested that Page check out Robert Plant.
Their first meeting consisted of playing records and discussing influences. The pair clicked and Plant recommended John Bonham join on drums. Because Page owned the rights to the name, and was contractually obligated to fill some Scandinavian tour dates the band was originally billed as the New Yardbirds. Who drummer, Keith Moon jokingly predicted the band would go over like a “lead balloon,” thus the new moniker, Led Zeppelin was born.
Of course, Led Zeppelin went on to become one of the most influential bands in Rock & Roll history, (second only to the Beatles). Critics, most famously, Rolling Stone magazine, dismissed them. But from the time their self-titled debut arrived in 1969, they enjoyed astounding commercial success.
Their sound was a heavy alchemy of Blues and Psychedelia that sometimes incorporated elements of Folk and World music, and even Funk and reggae. Their infamous years on the road were defined by mud sharks, record breaking tours and sybaritic excess.
The years of decadence and hedonism took their toll. Tragedy struck when Robert Plant’s young son, Karac, died at age five from a stomach infection. Then, in 1980, after a night of disproportionate drinking, John Bonham was found dead at age 32, after he fell asleep and choked on his own vomit. The juggernaut had ground to a halt.
After 12 years, eight studio albums and a live album, the three remaining members of Led Zeppelin called it quits. By 1982, Robert Plant tentatively began a solo career.
His first couple of albums, Pictures At Eleven and The Principle Of Moments, were Spartan affairs. Rather than trade on the power and bombastic crunch of his former band, Plant took pleasure from a quieter more nuanced approach.
Although his solo career never scaled the heights that Led Zeppelin achieved, it did allow him to follow his muses, whether they be Delta Blues singers, Elvis, the King of Rock & Roll, or Oum Kalthoum, the Egyptian woman widely regarded as the greatest female Arabic singer in history.
Plant and Page briefly reunited in 1984, along with Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers as the Honeydrippers. They released a five song EP, Volume One, offering their take on Rock & Roll classics like “I Got A Woman.” The album shot up the charts, it also allowed Plant to revisit his roots and loosen up a little.
By the early ‘90s, Plant had released four more albums and built up enough of a solo catalog to tour behind them. He also became comfortable with incorporating some Zeppelin tracks in the live sets.
In 1993, MTV approached Robert Plant and Jimmy Page about reuniting and performing live on their successful “Unplugged” program. Plant was initially reluctant, but the duo made it work. (Ironically, no one thought to include John Paul Jones).
Of course, Page and Plant couldn’t limit themselves to a strictly acoustic format. Instead, their performance included a full orchestra, mandolins, a hurdy-gurdy some electric guitar and Hozam Ramsy’s Egyptian Ensemble. The ensuing album, No Quarter, was so successful that they followed up with a world tour and a less interesting studio album, Walking Into Clarksdale.
Plant soldiered on with his solo career, but in 2007 producer T-Bone Burnett asked him to collaborate with Bluegrass superstar, Alison Krauss. The album that Burnett produced, Raising Sand was an enormous critical and commercial success, winning the duo five Grammy Awards.
Just as the album was gaining traction, Page, Plant and Jones reconvened with drummer Jason Bonham, (son of John), to headline a benefit concert held in memory of the late Atlantic Records founder, Ahmet Ertegun. Previous Zep reunions at Live Aid in 1985 and Atlantic’s 25th anniversary in 1988 were embarrassing at best. This time, the band woodshedded extensively: the result was an artistic triumph.
It seemed as though the time was right for Led Zeppelin to reunite and tour. Fans around the world were certainly excited by the prospect, as were promoters and venues; the payday would be enormous. Page, Jones and Bonham were on board, but Robert Plant wasn’t really interested in revisiting history. His restless spirit couldn’t be contained. After completing tour commitments with Alison Krauss he embarked on yet another new project
In 2010, Plant resurrected the name of his pre-Led Zeppelin group, Band Of Joy with multi-instrumentalists Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, drummer Marco Giovino, bassist Byron House and singer-songwriter Patty Griffin. Their self-titled debut arrived a few months later. Although it wasn’t as commercially successful as Raising Sand, it received a Grammy nomination. Plant also began a relationship with Patty Griffin, the two set up house together in Austin, Texas.
Now Plant has returned a new band, The Sensational Space Shifters and his ninth “solo” album, lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar. On the opening track, “Little Maggie,” worlds collide. The song is a Country Blues standard that dates back centuries. The Stanley Brothers popularized it in 1946. Plant’s version incorporates sprightly banjo riffs, Afro-Celtic woodwinds and a roiling Middle Eastern rhythm.
Three songs, “Rainbow,” “Turn It Up” and “Somebody There” blend Plant’s considerable Eastern and Western influences. The percussion on “Rainbow” echoes a Greek (or Turkish) Taxim, while his vocals have the prayer-like quality of davening. Meanwhile, the guitar licks that snake through the melody are pure Rock & Roll.
“Turn It Up” weds scratchy Blues guitar riffs to an arrangement that manages a “Kashmir”- like heft. Here Plant communes with the ghosts of Delta Blues, sing the praises of Charlie Patton and sneaks in pointed commentary on the abysmal state of commercial radio.
Finally “Somebody There” offers opaque memories of childhood wonder and Plant’s beginning love affair with music. Powered by plangent arpeggios and a martial cadence, Plant’s mien is wistful; “With eyes that slowly opened, I set about the wisdom to know/And living out of language before one word I spoke, I heard the call.”
The man who once weaved Tolkien legends and requests to “squeeze my lemon until the juice ran down my leg” into his lyrics has become somewhat introspective. Several songs address his relationship (and subsequent break-up) with Patty Griffin.
“Pocketful Of Golden” pivots on a spatial stop-start rhythm that recalls his 1983 hit, “In The Mood.” Plant doesn’t obfuscate, this is a clear paean to Patty. “Once I was set upon by thieves, they stole my heart/I finally found it in your arms and that’s where it’s going to stay…Red hair, raven hair gold like the sun.”
“A Stolen Kiss” is probably the most beautiful song Plant has ever written. A pensive, piano-driven ballad, it wouldn’t seem out of place on a Diana Krall or k.d. lang record. At once he addresses the dichotomies of his personality, as the wanderer drawn to “the western shore…to the lullaby and the ceaseless roar,” and the man who yearns to make his home in the heat of a stolen kiss.
Enveloped in sadness, he offers this hard earned wisdom: “Love waits for no one, there’s so little time, it’s cruel and elusive so hard to find/And moving further and further each day, I’m gone.”
“Embrace Another Fall” is a propulsive siren song. Here Plant shoulders all responsibility for the break up, chalking it up to his Black Country brooding. “Oh! The life upon your lips, your heart could not forsee/The tangle I became that brings me home again.” The final verse of the song is the 14th century poem, “Marwnad yr Eheydd” sung in Welsh by guest vocalist Julie Murphy.
Finally, “House Of Love” is a restless farewell, tethered by a galloping gait, a string section and guitars that boomerang through the melody. Plant is resigned to a desolate existence. “The heart is a heavy load, familiar this lonely road and I’m no stranger to this solitary song.”
Other interesting tracks include the yearning “Up On Hollow Hill (Understanding Arthur)” and a sly, exuberant and banjo-riffic cover of Leadbelly’s “Poor Howard.” The album closes with the experimental sound collage of “Arbaden (Maggie’s Baby).”
This is really a solo record in name only. The Space-Shifters that accompany Plant really are sensational. They consist of Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, omnichord, drum programming and upright bass, Liam “Skin” Tyson on guitar and banjo, John Baggott on keyboards, loops, moog bass, piano and tabal, Juldeh Camara on kologo, ritti and Fulani vocals and Justin Adams on bendirs, guitars, and tehardant .
Robert Plant has been quoted saying this album “may be the end of musical wanderlust and the wonderful carousel I’ve been on.” If that is true, lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar is the perfect swan song, so to speak. The self-proclaimed and perennial Golden God of Rock & Roll has become a graceful and reflective lion in winter.