Review: Common Ground — Robert Plant and Alison Krauss Find Unlikely Harmony

By Bradley Bambarger <2008>

It’s a lucky thing singer Robert Plant isn’t easily led, or we would never have known how beautiful his old band’s “Black Dog” could sound as a rustic slow burn, the original’s chest-beating male lust transmuted into a hushed erotic incantation between man and woman.

Plant has refused, or at least put off, the easy nostalgia of a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, instead hitting the road behind his collaboration of whispering Americana with bluegrass songbird Alison Krauss. The pair cooed “Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing/Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting” in tandem at Atlantic City’s Borgata Ballroom, with a banjo picking out the signature Zep riff.

Plant and Krauss had met from opposite sides of the stage, apt symbolism for such unlikely partners — the former golden god of English hard-rock still powered by wanderlust, the younger country fiddler blessed with a seraphic voice and sweetheart smile. “Rich Woman” — a sly R&B obscurity and the opener to their hit Raising Sand album — immediately displayed the unusual sensuality of their vocal weave, which feels like two lovers sharing a secret in the dark.

Key credit for the arresting moodiness of Raising Sand goes to T-Bone Burnett, one of the top record producers of the past two decades (his resume including the roots-Zeitgeist soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?). With his Old West jacket-vest combos, the 6-foot-4 Burnett looks like some marshal-preacher stepped out of a daguerreotype, though toting a 1950s guitar rather than a gun or Bible. He led a crew of subtle virtuosos that made the album’s material more combustible on stage.

The band sounds like a dream in which the ghosts of blues, country and rockabilly shake hands at an old medicine show. Guitarist Buddy Miller shot shivering solos over the mandolin/fiddle filigree of all-round ace Stuart Duncan, whose banjo also seeded the makeover of Zeppelin’s “Black Country Woman.” And the rhythm section made a voodoo-zydeco rumble when Burnett stepped to the mic for his killer take on “Bon Temps Rouler.”

With his goatee and leonine mane, the 59-year-old Plant looks like a hippie wizard and sounds like a sage with a heart that hasn’t aged a day. He egged on the band with shouts and reels around the stage (taking care not to spook Krauss, who sways shyly). The singer can also channel an interior passion; for Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’ ” — which he described reverently as “skeletal self-analysis” — Plant pushed his voice to evoke the fraying soul of the song’s damaged writer.

The set peaked with a spectacular “Battle of Evermore,” the psychedelic-folk epic that Led Zeppelin released in 1971, the year Krauss was born. The original featured plaintive English stylist Sandy Denny, the only singer to ever duet with Plant on a Zeppelin record. Yet Krauss fully measured up, joining for wails that raised a wave of palpable emotion from the near-capacity crowd of 2,300. That was hard to follow, but their cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone” gave off its own bittersweet ecstasy.

Even if a lot of people pray in casinos, the places are hardly likely venues for gospel singing. But midway in, Krauss had led an a cappella, pitch-perfect “Down in the River to Pray” (from O Brother), which earned a response worthy of a Zep classic. Songs blending religious and romantic faith also sealed the show. Really, the whole night felt like a cliché-purifying hosanna to the spirit of American music. It felt impossible not to echo amen.

(Originally published in the June 10, 2008 issue of The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

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