By Eleni P. Austin
“My love is in league with the freeway, it’s passion will ride as the cities fly by/And the tail-lights in the coming of night, and the questions in thousands take flight”
That’s Robert Plant, attempting to explicate his wanderlust at the start of his solo career nearly 40 years ago. Up until recently, he had been the frontman for one of the biggest bands in the world, Led Zeppelin. But in October 1980, following the sudden death of their drummer, and Robert’s hometown pal, John Bonham, the group, which included guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones were heartbroken and devastated. Opting not to continue without him, they quietly called it quits. Born in the so-called Black Country of England, West Bromwich, Staffordshire, Robert became obsessed with music as a kid. Growing up in nearby Worcestershire, His passion for Elvis Presley was only supplanted when he discovered the Blues. Inspired by progenitors like Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon, he resisted his parents’ wish that he become an accountant, and left home at age 16. He quickly became a part of the thriving Midlands Blues scene. Soon he began singing with nascent combos like the Crawling King Snakes, which included drummer (and Worcestershire native), John Bonham. He cycled through a few more local outfits, finally fronting Band Of Joy with John Bonham behind the kit.
By 1968, he’d joined forces with ex-Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page, multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, and, per his suggestion, John Bonham. When Who drummer Keith Moon predicted they’d go over like a lead balloon, the moniker stuck. Their self-titled debut arrived by the end of the year.
Embraced by fans and dismissed by critics, Led Zeppelin released eight studio albums and one live collection between 1968 and 1980. Their sound was a potent alchemy of Blues, Folk and Psychedelia, with trace elements of Country, World Music and Funk. Their off-stage antics often involved groupies, mud sharks and copious amounts of alcohol and other um, medications. Their sybaritic exploits nearly overshadowed their musical prowess.
Two years after Led Zeppelin broke up, Robert embarked on a solo career. His first two efforts, Pictures At Eleven and The Principle Of Moments eschewed the bombastic crunch that characterized the Zep years. The new stuff was leaner, meaner, and more nuanced. He briefly reconvened with Jimmy Page, along with Jeff Beck and Nile Rodgers as The Honeydrippers. They released Volume One, a five-song EP that offered their take on classic ‘50s Rock & Roll and R&B songs, and was a resounding success.
Robert’s solo output didn’t vault to the top of the charts like Led Zeppelin did, but sales were respectable. This allowed him to follow his muses, which included Delta Blues singers, Elvis, the King Of Rock & Roll and Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum, the reigning Queen of Arabic song. He released albums at a brisk clip, Shaken n’ Stirred in 1985, Now And Zen in 1988 and Manic Nirvana in 1990. Following his 1993 album, Fate Of Nations, MTV approached Robert and Jimmy Page, asking them to reunite on the channel’s successful “Unplugged” program.
Robert was reluctant, (and weirdly, no one thought to include John Paul Jones), but he acquiesced. The duo made it work, largely by forgoing the acoustic format and augmenting their sound with a full orchestra, mandolin, hurdy gurdy and Hozam Ramsy’s Egyptian Ensemble. Filmed in Wales, Morocco and London, it was a ratings success, spawning a live album, No Quarter, an ensuing tour, as well as a less interesting studio album from the pair, entitled Walking To Clarksdale.
His Page And Plant duties took up a huge chunk of the ‘90s, but by the 21st century Robert returned with 2002’s Dreamland and 2005’s Mighty ReArranger. Two years later, producer T-Bone Burnett asked him to collaborate with Bluegrass sensation Alison Krauss. The ensuing album, Raising Sand was critically acclaimed and, surprisingly, an enormous commercial success. It went on to win five Grammy awards.
Just as Raising Sand was topping the charts, Robert, Jimmy and John Paul Jones reconnected with the addition of drummer Jason Bonham, son of John, to headline a pair of benefit concerts to honor the late Ahmet Ertegun. The members of Zep had performed a couple of times before with abysmal results. This time, they woodshedded extensively and completely acquitted themselves at both shows.
The world was clamoring for a full-fledged Led Zeppelin tour. Fans, promoters and venues were on board, as were Jimmy, John Paul and Jason. Robert was the lone holdout. He wasn’t interested in revisiting history he was looking forward, eager for new challenges.
His next musical adventure commenced in 2010 when he resurrected the name of his pre-Zep outfit, Band Of Joy. He then recruited multi-instrumentalists Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott, as well as drummer Marco Giovino, bassist Byron House and acclaimed singer-songwriter, Patty Griffin. Almost as popular as Raising Sand, the album peaked at #5 and received a couple of Grammy nominations. It also marked the beginning of a romantic relationship between Robert and Patty. The pair set up housekeeping together as her home base of Austin, Texas.
In the last decade, Robert and his most recent band, The Sensational Space Shifters, have released two brilliant albums, 2014’s lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar and 2017’s Carry Fire. Both records cryptically alluded to his and Patty’s break-up, touched on his “Black Country moods” and reflected on the “musical carousel” he jumped on back in the ‘60s. More recently, he’s begun a new podcast, “Digging Deep.” There, he tells the stories behind his songs. As the second season commences, he’s released a companion, two-disc anthology; Digging Deep: Subterranea.
The record kicks into gear with “Rainbow,” from the …lullaby.. album. A stinging taqsim, the melody echoes the improvisational style employed in Greek and Turkish music. Guitars swirl and shimmy over insistent djembe and bendir rhythms. Robert’s vocals are nearly as agile and elastic as they were during Led Zeppelin’s heyday, as he pledges everlasting love; “Love is enough though the world be a wind, and the woods have no voice, but the voice of complaining/My hands shall not tremble, my feet shall not falter, the voyage shall not weary, the fish shall not alter.”
This collection simply meanders, forsaking chronology for mood, which is as it should be. The two songs that represent his debut, “Pictures At Eleven” can be found toward the end of disc one and in the middle of disc two. “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” begins tentatively, just broody guitars and pliant vocals. His phrasing here retains a trace of Led Zep grandeur, as the song accelerates slowly, powered by tinkly hi-hat, lush keys and guttural bass. a serpentine guitar solo slithers through the break. Conversely, “Fat Lip” is surprisingly muscular, matching rippling electric guitars with a hiccough-y synth rhythm and defiant vocals.
His earliest solo stuff still holds up, three cuts from ‘83’s The Principle Of Moments manage to feel au courant. The aforementioned “Big Log” features courtly Spanish guitars, simmering keys and percolating synth claps. “Wreckless Love” is anchored by an urgent Tsiftetelli beat, modal guitars that scuttle and retreat, blurred bass lines, sun-kissed keys and Robert’s growly carnality. Meanwhile, “In The Mood” still evokes that secret Shangri-la, a lush musical oasis hidden in the arid desert landscape. Equally lush and lean, it seems to float by. The flirtatious melody is propelled by arching, airy synths, which envelope pulsating bass lines, taut, hi-hat action and shimmery guitars. Robert is at his most seductive here, simply informing us that he’s in the mood. Guitars shapeshift on the break, over a walloping drum beat and fluttery synths that fade into the ether.
Not surprisingly, it’s the late ‘80s output feels the somewhat dated. “Heaven Knows” is saturated in dayglo synths and his stentorian vocals buried beneath a mountain of distaff backing vocals. The finger-popping syncopation of “White, Clean And Neat” strays from the genuine into gimmicky territory. The slashing guitar riffs on “Hurting Kind” are undercut by programmed drums. Not even Robert’s patented lemon-dripper yowl can save it. Happily, “Ship Of Fools” escapes the fate of obsolescence. The stately ballad is powered by piquant guitars, subtle keys and angular percussion. A few neatly turned phrases; “Who claims that no man is an island, while I land up in jeopardy, more distant from you by degrees/I walk this shore in isolation, and at my feet eternity draws ever sweeter plans for me,” reveal the depth of desolation.
Robert reserves most of the collection’s bandwidth for two albums, Fate Of Nations from 1993 and Band Of Joy from 2010. Almost half of the Fate…. record appears. From the spare and evocative bottleneck Blues of “Great Spirit,” and the buoyant and expansive “I Believe,” to the crunchy sunshine of “Memory Song (Hello Hello)” and the wily and windswept “29 Palms.”
The Band Of Joy stuff is far more earthy. Their take on “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” recalibrates the traditional spiritual, transforming it into a backwoods, banjo-riffic benediction. On “Falling In Love Again,” Soulful Doo-Wop crooning collides with high lonesome pedal steel and reverb-drenched guitar. “Silver Rider” is suitably autumnal, as Robert and Patty’s vocals lock into shadowy blend. Best of all, BoJ slightly highjacks Los Lobos’ sprightly two-step, “Angel Dance,” by attaching rattlesnake guitars, thrumming bass and nimble mandolin runs to a ramshackle rhythm.
The rest of Robert’s 21st century albums, are afforded two cuts apiece. They range from the deep Delta davening of “Darkness, Darkness” and the jaggy static of “Last Time I Saw Her” from 2002’s Dreamland. Then there’s the curvaceous siren song of “Embrace Another Fall” from 2014’s lullaby… Meanwhile, both “New World” and “Dance With You Tonight,” off his latest effort, Carry Fire confirm that the self-proclaimed “Golden God” of Rock, is still at the height of his powers. The former offers a homecoming of sorts. A stompy groover, it weds chunky power chords and tensile bass lines to a Rock Steady beat, as Robert’s beatific vocals thread through the sinewy instrumentation. The latter feels like a poignant love letter to his Led Zep mates. Subdued keys and strummy guitars envelope Robert’s intimate croon as he offers a tender farewell; “And now the carnival is over, someone turned out the light, our fields of plenty filled with clover, so long ago and out of sight/This little light that keeps on shining, all through the darkness through the night, the ever more will keep reminding, the road is long, the flame is bright.” The “Skip-To-My-Lou” metallurgy of “Shine It,” sounds as fresh as it did 15 years ago, when it was released on Mighty ReArranger. But the real revelation from that record is “Takamba.” Here, Robert’s musical obsessions coalesce into one heady brew. Spidery bass lines connect with scratchy rhythm guitar, slippery keys, explosive modal guitar notes and a punishing backbeat. Something of an aural juggernaut, it enables him to connect the dots from Elvis Presley to Willie Dixon to Oum Khalthoum.
Making this collection just a little more, um collectible, Robert has added three unreleased tracks. They include the sanctified gumbo of “Nothing Takes The Place Of You,” the primordial Blues of “Charlie Patton Highway (Turn It Up-Part One)” and “Too Much Alike,” a down home Countrified charmer that allows Robert and Patty to summon their inner-Elvis Presleys. The 30-song set closes with one more Fate Of Nations track. The Levee-breaking, cross-cut crunch of “Promised Land” unleashes smoky harmonica, whooshy Farfisa keys, roiling bass and brawny Y-Aur guitars over a hopscotch beat. A potent combo-platter styles, to paraphrase the late great Muhammad Ali, it floats like a butterfly and stings like a fucking nest of Murder Hornets.
Inexplicably M.I.A. are any songs from his 1985 Shaken n’ Stirred solo album, or his massively popular Alison Krauss collaboration, Raising Sand. Also, nowhere to be found are huge ‘80s hits like “Burning Down One Side,” “Pledge Pin” and “Tall Cool One.” But in a recent interview, Robert characterized Digging Deep: Subterranea as “a collision of time and ideas. Fine Art curated by a Mad Hatter.” Sounds about right. Anyone willing to take the plunge down this musical rabbit hole will not be disappointed.