Friday, February 13, 2009

Plant chooses creativity over Led Zeppelin nostalgia

Grammy windfall: Robert Plant chooses creativity over Led Zeppelin nostalgia
Greg Kot
February 9, 2009

Robert Plant could have been doing something other than winning five Grammys on Sunday with Alison Krauss. He could’ve been out making mega-millions of dollars on tour with the surviving members of his old band, Led Zeppelin.

The opportunity was there for the taking when Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones were joined by Jason Bonham, son of the late Zep drummer, John Bonham, for a one-off London reunion gig in 2007.

That same year, Plant collaborated on “Raising Sand,” a relatively low-key yet highly adventurous album with country-pop singer Krauss. It was a risky little effort, with both Plant and Krauss working outside their comfort zones. On Sunday, it brought home a mini-avalanche of five Grammy Awards, including album of the year, topping heavy competition such as Coldplay, Radiohead and Lil Wayne.

But that kind of success couldn’t have been foreseen when the album was released. A Led Zeppelin reunion, on the other hand, would’ve been a sure thing.

Veteran artists with successful brand names (Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd) can make lots of money on the nostalgia circuit. No new music is required. It’s play the hits, and go straight to the bank. Tour promoters have been salivating for decades about the prospects of a Zeppelin reunion; many predict it would be the highest-earning rock tour of all time. But Plant has adamantly refused to go along. He has instead continued to pursue a solo career, defined by its adventurous spirit.

It is not a career arch followed by many of Plant’s peers. Presented with the option of making easy money or creating new music, most choose the money. And who can really blame them? It’s the rock-star equivalent of early retirement.

That’s why Plant’s determination to go his own way, to choose creative impulse over financial expedience, is one of the new year’s most inspiring music stories.

Plant is 60 years old. He no longer needs to prove anything to anyone, having changed the course of rock history once with Zeppelin in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Krauss, 37, has had a successful career as the violin-playing singer in Union Station, a first-rate bluegrass band that has had some crossover hits in pop and country. But “Raising Sand” finds them both breaking ground and making music that doesn’t sound quite like anything else.

Picking up where the acoustic side of the 1970 album “Led Zeppelin III” left off, “Raising Sand” burrows into the mystical side of folk and country music. Burnett proposed the project, picked the songs and assembled the band, which put an eerie 21st Century spin on 20th Century roots music.

Plant had never sung vocal harmonies before. He had always been the golden-god front man, his voice clearly the lead instrument. But on “Raising Sand,” he and Krauss blend with understatement and empathy. Plant’s wordless harmonies on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” give Krauss and the song exactly what they need, and it’s a goosebump-inducing epiphany. From the shake-rattle-and-shimmy of Allen Toussant’s “Fortune Teller” to the hymn-like heartbreak of Gene Clark’s “Polly Come Home,” the performances reward close attention and rank with the best work either of these artists has done.

Rounder Records, a venerable independent label based in the Northeast, released “Raising Sand” and it has become one of its biggest hits. Its multiple nominations were old hat for Krauss, who before Sunday has already won 21 Grammy awards. But none were for a project quite this adventurous.

"We ostensibly come from such different places on the musical map," Plant said in a media conference backstage Sunday. "Alison showed me so much I never been exposed to."

That Plant is still learning new tricks is a testament to his artistry. That he’s not touring with a reunited Led Zeppelin is a sign of enduring integrity. That’s a lot of money to be passing up, even if “Raising Sand” did win five Grammys.

But Plant was having none of it. The singer again was confronted with the inevitable question Sunday about his future involvement in any Zeppelin tour.

"How old are you, man?" Plant responded. "Because you look older than me. You try to do 'Communication Breakdown' in these pants."

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