Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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.


Anonymous said...

Did anyone mention to you that Raising Sand was not a "proper rock" album?
Your attempt at being intellectualfell far short of the mark.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on being a moron. Boo freaking hoo for you that Plant doesn't want to be a greatest hits jukebox for a bunch of classic rock obsessed losers.

Malia said...

Rock on Lyle Hopwood! Poor brainwashed anonymous people buying the hype that this whitebread stuff is groundbreaking and cool. Raising Sand and the Fiddle and Banjo Band are sanitizing and homogenizing what was once folksy and blue roots music and turned it into something palatable for the cultural wasteland that is average America. Wake up and smell the valium people!

Juli said...

You've not only hit the nail on the head, but have driven it in with a finality that brooks no argument. Raising Sand is about as ground-breaking as the Starland Vocal Band. Playing it safe isn't groundbreaking, inventive or any of the other adjectives used to describe Robert's Fiddle Extravaganza featuring Alison and her Amazing Pirate Boots. It's taking the easy way out for a man who is obviously no longer capable of producing anything original and fresh. Rock on Lyle Hopwood!

Peromyscus said...

"Did anyone mention to you that Raising Sand was not a "proper rock" album?"

Yes, anonymous coward, it's been pointed out to me.

"Your attempt at being intellectualfell far short of the mark."

Possibly. But if you wanted to show that was the case, you've failed miserably.

Peromyscus said...

Another anonymous coward wrote: "Congratulations on being a moron. Boo freaking hoo for you that Plant doesn't want to be a greatest hits jukebox for a bunch of classic rock obsessed losers."

Robert Plant is touring the world singing Black Dog, When the Levee Breaks, Black Country Woman and The Battle of Evermore. And that makes ME the classic rock obsessed loser?

As for the “new” stuff, playing clapped out American folk music quietly isn't exactly breaking new ground. This stuff is as dated as skiffle. In fact, skiffle’s funkier.

Mike said...

One reviewer dissented :-
(URL sliced for display.)

This isn't a collaboration between Krauss and Plant. This is all Burnett, with Krauss and Plant as the hired help to front it. Burnett is mining commercial gold from country arrangements of covers (platinum, $100K clothes ads).

The Black Dog rendition is what's left when the riff is stripped out (appearing only in the intro). All Plant, no Page. Clearer version :-

Peromyscus said...

Interesting as always, Mike. Good point about Lamb Chop Burnett – Plant's fallen for a Machiavellian figure before. See Page, Jimmy.

I quite like that CMT version of Black Dog you posted. The vocal timing's slightly off but I assume they got better at it later. The breakdown in the middle works quite well, with the solo coming across as seriously restrained mayhem, a bit like an orgasm under the influence of Tylenol PM ™. I think I saw this on the CMT special when the record came out.

Frankly, I have nothing against Plant's arrangements being Plant without Page – that's who he is after all – but I just wish there was more Plant there. As an example, when Plant sang "watch your honey drip, can't keep away" with Led Zeppelin, you got the message that you were really going to get it. [1] But with the new arrangement, Plant sounds as though one of those signs British people get from ironmongers' shops, reading "Polite Notice: No Parking" would be more than sufficient deterrent. Where's the fun in that? [2]

[1] I've always wondered what men thought about it – that you were really going to give it to her? Or what?


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