As you may know, I saw Robert Plant play with Strange Sensation last year. They're a proper rock band, playing some mixed modern music, a little folky here and there but basically rocking out. I had a great time.
A friend of mine saw the Plant/Krauss show in Memphis this week. She didn't like it. Her feelings about the whispered, banjo-led arrangement of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog were less than entirely positive. I haven't seen them live, but I've heard the album, Raising Sand, and I've watched their version of Black Dog, and her sentiments certainly echo mine.
I've read review after review of this tour that rhapsodizes about Alison Krauss, Genius Producer T Bone Burnett, eerie Down to the River to Pray and beyond earthly Sister Rosetta Something Something. Some of these reviews are so fulsome I've wondered many times if the reviewers are telling the truth. Are they, a voice at the back of my mind wonders, perhaps telling us how great the Emperor's New Clothes are because they'd get noticed if they didn't say that?
Here's what I think. I think listening to Robert Plant sing Black Dog as quietly as possible accompanied by a banjo is time that could be spent more productively, e.g. scraping that weird black paste made up of old skin cells and grease off the car's steering wheel where it mysteriously accumulates.
It was mildly amusing at first to see a major cultural raider like Plant abandon his pet Mississippi delta bluesmen, Chicago bluesmen, Egyptians, Moroccans and other "others" who never had the dollar to push back, and instead latch on to a rich white woman, but after a while I got pissed off that he'd selected a *woman* to anoint with his Rock God elixir. I bet he would never pick on someone his own size - i.e. a male star of a western non-rock idiom.
Eventually, I realized he'd actually gone native like so many cultural tourists do and started to side with "Americana" over rock. Living with them might not have turned his brain on its own, but he may have driven over the edge by having Jimmy Page hassle him for more Zeppling after the December reunion gig.
Watching Robert Plant sing Black Dog with this band is akin to watching a victim of Stockholm Syndrome beg to wash her kidnappers' socks. He's gone native now and isn't coming back - bully for him, but I don't have to like it.
In case you think I'm overreacting, here's the July 3rd Phoenix version of Black Dog.
At first I thought he was screwing with the audiences' heads - seeing how much they would take before someone shouted, "Lookee! He's got no clothes!" After a while I think I got what he was trying to do. By reducing the noise and the flash and limiting Black Dog entirely to feel, he's trying to bring out the sheer presence and atmosphere inside the song. Face it, it's a spooky number. There's a hysterical edge to it that takes it out of the ordinary. "Eyes that shine burning red, dreams of you all through my head" is adolescently transcendent.
The problem is, the rearrangement didn't work. There's an effortless spookiness to real blues players which means they don't have to go to the swamp; the swamp goes to them. Just a few minutes with Robert Johnson and you believe he did sell his soul to the Devil, because no one gets that supernatural edge unless something magic and inhuman oozed its way through the pores of in his reality like oil seeping through stone, darkening his words and haunting his guitar.
But that video of Black Dog just sounds like Black Dog played really, really quietly on a banjo with a fiddle.