Robert Plant interview: singer happy to entertain without Led Zeppelin reunion
By Neil McCormick
Published: 3:59PM BST 20 Aug 2010
Back in the 1970s, as the priapic frontman for Led Zeppelin, Plant pronounced himself a “Golden God”. These days, with long, curling hair and roguish goatee beard, the 61-year-old rock deity comes over more as a wise old sage.
Sitting in a hotel lobby in Dallas, he says, in a soft, Midlands burr: “This city brings back a lot of memories. This was where I rehearsed for my first post-Zeppelin gig.
"It was all huge emotional chaos in me, ’cause I was about to go out without the great force field. I was the only one carrying this thing, this myth state, to the centre of stage. There was a huge feeling of loss.”
It was his role fronting the ground-breaking, world-conquering rock quartet for 12 years that established Plant as one of Britain’s greatest voices, and rock culture’s most defining archetypes.
So what is he doing here, three decades on, playing a tour of intimate theatres with an all-singing ensemble of American roots and country virtuosos, in a group named in honour of his teenage psychedelic blues outfit, Band Of Joy?
“Well, that’s what I feel like,” he says. “Somewhere between a teenager and an old man, making my debut album. It’s freedom.”
Plant genuinely seems to be having the time of his life. While fans and former band mates have been clamouring for a Zeppelin reunion, Plant has been resolutely pursuing his own idiosyncratic path.
And it has taken him somewhere close to where it all started, singing blues and folk in clubs around the English Black Country.
“The sort of haphazardness of the way this thing developed makes me think of those glorious days when there was no concern about maintaining success, it was just so free.”
The original sixties Band Of Joy featured Plant and lifelong friend, the late Led Zeppelin drummer, John “Bonzo” Bonham.
Plant depicts himself as a white kid trying to interpret “all that kind of miasma of the dark voodoo hoochie coochie black American thing”.
Band Of Joy, he says, were fiercely in pursuit of something they all felt was “absolutely crucial” but which few others could be persuaded to embrace.
“We only had three or four places we could play in the UK and the rest of the time we’d be siphoning fuel out of cars in the middle of the night and nicking milk off doorsteps at 4am. I had nothing to lose, so it was just sort of 'who cares, as long as it's jumping?’”
It is this mindset that Plant seems to have fully embraced. Working with outstanding American musicians such as the guitarist Buddy Miller and the country queen Patty Griffin, he runs Band Of Joy as a kind of revue, with all the members harmonising and taking turns at lead vocals as they cover old songs in a huge range of styles: blues, gospel, folk and country (and enough reworked Zeppelin covers and hints of wild psych rock to keep old fans entranced).
Plant was 19 when he was recruited in 1968 by session guitarist Jimmy Page for a new group, bringing in his old friend Bonham alongside bassist John Paul Jones.
Despite a perception that Plant has spent much of his solo career trying to shut the door on his time as a rock god, he remains hugely proud of Led Zeppelin.
“We were never a middle of the road band, we were really quite fearsome.”
But he has admitted that his heart went out of it after his five-year-old son, Karac, died of a viral infection in 1977. The subsequent (drink related) death of Bonham in 1980 hit him very hard and the group decided to break up.
Plant’s career has followed a wayward path, taking him from the vintage R’n’B of The Honeydrippers to a wild concoction of hybridised world music with his band Strange Sensation.
In 2007, his extraordinary, ethereal album with the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, set him on another path, exploring roots Americana.
It went on to win five Grammy awards in the US, including Album of the Year.
But just as his Krauss collaboration was lifting off, Zeppelin reunited for one night only at the Ahmet Ertegun tribute concert at London’s O2 Arena in December 2007, with Jason Bonham taking his father’s place behind the drum kit.
“I really had a wonderful time,” says Plant. “It was the best Led Zeppelin gig since 1975.” Many would like the reunion to have continued, including his band mates. When I spoke to Jimmy Page earlier this year, he said: "You’d better ask Robert Plant what the future of Led Zeppelin is.”
So I put the question directly to Plant: would he do it again?
“I don’t think so,” he sighs. “You’ve got to have a lot in common with the people you’re working with at this time in your life. Everything has to move on and forward, in all relationships.
"I know that bands that haven’t put out a record for 10 years are playing to 20,000 people a night. But that’s not the achievement. The achievement is to knock yourself out. It’s a very selfish thing. The tail must never wag the dog.”
So instead of touring stadiums, Plant is taking his personal roots revue around small venues.
“You can create an intimacy that this music kind of demands and its not getting lost in some crazy cube which is going to be holding a car show the following week.
"Theatres are built because they were the boards for entertainment. Something about looking up into those proscenium arches and seeing all the dangling ropes and all that stuff makes you think 'yeah, I’ve actually made it! I’m an entertainer’.”
Robert Plant and The Band Of Joy play London’s HMV Forum on Sept 2. The album Band Of Joy is released by Rounder on Sept 13.
(This article really seals it, Robert just is not up for any Led Zeppelin reunion tour at all. He is quite happy doing his smaller venues and being intimate with the audience. I do understand how he feels. I'm sure when he looks at himself in the mirror he knows there is no way that he can do what he did do when he was 25. Time takes care of that and there is no way to turn back time, you can just remember but you can never experience it again at least not in the same way. Once it's gone it's gone. At least he seems to have a positive attitude and a sense of freedom now in his golden years. At this point in time he deserves to be able to do what makes him the most happy.)
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