Robert Plant Band O Joy DVD with Buddy Miller. Rock deity does Nashville in a fascinating re-work of Zeppelin tracks alongside some Americana classics. Sheer musical brilliance.

Label: Universal
Time: 16 Tracks / 76 minutes  (+ 14 Minutes interview)

On a long-haul flight last year there were more entertainment options that I could possibly experience in one go, but it was Band of Joy’s studio album that I kept returning to. “Angel Dance,” which struck me as merely OK when its video helped launch the original album, went on to repeat and the rest of the disc kept me very occupied.

This live show mainly mixes three parts: tracks from the studio album, Led Zeppelin classics and pieces that feature the band members.

There are surprisingly few renditions of the studio tracks. “Angel Dance” and “House of Cards” both feature early on and set the scene well, showing the professionalism of a band that gets the details spot on. With vocals coming from five of the six players (and all of them on the closing à capella “I Bid You Goodnight,” harmonies gain a new importance. “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday” is less striking, but still strong and enjoyable - there are no duds here.

The Led Zeppelin tracks are of obvious interest. Since Plant has refused a band re-union, there are few chances to hear live interpretations. Of course, Led Zep tracks are not homogenous. Some types work better than others when the Band of Joy remodels them. Perhaps predictably, the riffier ones generally lose power, while the melodic ones gain from Nashville’s experience inconventional songs.

“Black Dog” and “Gallows Pole” suffer tremendously from a lack of vocal range. Where once Plant could once let his vocals run free, the formality of several singers harmonising squashes the dynamics, making them feel like one-chord wonders. Yet this version of “Black Dog” grows on you. The band’s interpretation makes less of the riff and turns it into a long, bass-heavy groove, with Buddy Miller making his guitar growl at the bottom end.

“Houses of the Holy” is a real surprise with a great new start. Band of Joy downplays this riff too. It is still there, but doing so highlights the melody, making the song sound far more lke a piece from Led Zeppelin III than a slab of funky classic rock from Physical Graffiti. It is exactly this kind of transformation that make this live collection so fascinating. It would have been enthralling to witness these musicians playing about with these tracks behind the scenes.

“Ramble On” – one of Zeppelin’s greatest works, is another majestic reinterpretation. Darrell Scott plays oud, using it to solo in the central breakdown. While that section has its ragged moments, the rise and fall in this lengthy account prolongs the joy. It’s one where glances between Plant and members of his band reveal both the respect and fun that they share onstage.

Still at the more melodic end, “Tangerine” is a natural for a band with pedal steel and a bassist like Byron House. This is a glorious version that keeps getting better with successive plays.

One of the effects of a Tennessee band is that the spirituality is up front. It’s fascinating – and a joy – to see the man whose band was once slated by some for Jimmy Page’s alleged occultism singing so much about Jesus.  “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” was one of the stronger songs on the album and is very rich here. Darrell Scott’s solo spot is the same “A Satisfied Mind” that Dylan chose for his Saved album; while “I Bid You Goodnight” celebrates Jesus’s love.

It’s not often that drummers show a style all of their own, but here, Marco Giovino does just that. On the opener he plays mainly toms; next he plays a variation, where one stick has bells on; next he uses a dampened tambourine on the hi-hat stand; on “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” he pats a shaker, pedals the bass drum and rims the stick with bells on; elsewhere it’s only brushes. He actually plays it straight in "Rock and Roll."

That is typical of the musicianship and care for detail throughout this performance. Buddy Miller – the man that Plant honours as the architect of their sound, changes guitar every track; Patty Griffin is pretty solid on vocals, guitar and percussion; Byron House gets a resonant bottom end just right on electric, upright and bowed basses; and Darrell Scott flits between guitars, fretless banjo, oud and pedal steel. These combinations mean that each song gets a deeply considered treatment that reveals more detail with successive views.

Credit to Plant for putting his ego aside and bringing out the best in all these players. He still struts, pouts and holds the mic in that rock star pose, but here is a man who is thoroughly enjoying being on stage with a talented band given a democratic chance to shine. Miller and Plant even match each other in the length of their winklepickers!

The extras are mainly an interview that doesn’t push too deep, but is still enjoyable. Plant largely talks about how he is “an Englishman totally enamoured by American music” and explores the way that his music was originally borrowed from the States and now that English hybrid is being re-interpreted in an American way. He also humbly goes on to say how he is learning to use his voice in a support role.

One of the DVD’s best bits is the promise in that interview: “We’ve got to do it again, because it’s got to be a lot more extreme next time.” Roll on that next time.


Derek Walker

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