MILWAUKEE — Walk into the Riverside Theatre midway through Monday night’s show without any preconceptions, and you might have thought you were seeing a completely different band. As the bear-like singer-songwriter Darrell Scott took lead vocals, Grammy-winning singer Patti Griffin contributed mesmerizing backing vocals as guitarist Buddy Miller pounded away on his axe.
The music was so enjoyable, it might have taken a minute for your eyes to settle on the leonine man at the back of the stage, and realized you were in the presence of a bonafide Rock God.
Robert Plant seemed to be having a whale of time in this new band, Band of Joy, exactly because he doesn’t have to play the Rock God all the time. While Plant did take center stage for most of the wonderful show Monday night, even favoring the crowd with a few electrifying reworkings of old Led Zeppelin tracks, he seemed happiest to be able to melt into the background and just be part of the group.
The crowd was full of Led Zeppelin fans in “ZOSO” shirts and others, chattering excitedly before the set about whether Plant might dig into his old songbook or focus on his new material. While other veteran rockers have been content to relive past glories (or sell them for millions of dollars for television commercials), Plant has always seemed eager to move forward.
Although Band of Joy is actually named after his first band in the mid-1960s, it’s a brand-new collection of American musicians surrounding the 62-year-old British rock icon. Fitting for a man whose music was so influenced by American country, soul and rock — during the show, Plant talked about how as a young Englishman, there wasn’t much going on musically in his home country, “just the odd Elvis impersonator and a couple of hard rock bands.”
So he looked to America for inspiration, and one thing that Monday’s show made clear is that Plant is still looking, a music fan at heart. The set included everything from a galvanizing cover of Rev. Gary Davis’ “12 Gates To the City” to a haunting rendition of Minneapolis band Low’s “Silver Rider,” from Richard Thompson’s devastating “House of Cards” to an epic, set-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain Is Going To Fall.”
The Band of Joy gives Plant plenty of weapons in his arsenal when attacking these songs, including three lead singers who could harmonize beautifully. Miller (last seen in Madison playing with Emmylou Harris at Overture Hall) can conjure up wounded fire with his guitar or make it achingly sweet, while Scott added beautiful textures with banjo, steel guitar, and bouzouki. And Griffin just has one of the best, truest voices in music — it’s an amazing, supple line-up.
And then there was the man himself. Dressed simply in a heather-grey T-shirt and jeans, his mane flowing down to his shoulders, Plant slid comfortably and easily into every song, his voice still capable of rising from a low purr to a wordless extended yowl. You could still see echoes of the old bare-chested Plant of old — he still does that thing where he stands with his ankles crossed, dipping the microphone stand at a rakish diagonal angle as he sings – but he now brings both an old pro’s grace and a young fan’s enthusiasm to the material.
The songs of the “Band of Joy” album sounded spectacular, from the tribal rhythms of “Down to the Sea” to the slow, hypnotic build of “Little Angel Dance” into a thunderstorm of sound. At various times during the set, Plant receded to the rear of the stage to let Miller, Griffin and Scott each have a turn at lead vocals, and instead of slowing down the momentum, they were three more highlights of the night, especially Scott’s spellbinding “Satisfied Mind.”
And then there were the Zeppelin songs interspersed throughout the night. Doing radical reinterpretations of your old songs is a risky proposition; Dylan fans basically have to perform a full memory wipe of any familiarity they have with his old material in order to enjoy his new versions.
But the arrangements of the Zep songs, starting with the set-opening “Black Dog,” were terrific, capturing the essence of the original while taking it in startling new directions. “Black Dog,” for example, downshifted into a bluesy, restrained shuffle, the original’s bombast almost completely reined it. “Black Country Woman” was similarly tied down, beginning largely with just harmonized vocals and guitar, and including a banjo solo, of all things, in the middle.
“Tangerine,” played during the three-song encore, was actually fairly faithful to the original. But the highlight of the night, the moment that everyone brought out their cell phone cameras, was the one-two set-closing punch of “Houses of the Holy” and “Ramble On.” “Holy” had kind of a roots-rock vibe, building and surging into a triumphant gospel-accented finale.
And “Ramble On” was absolutely fantastic, again because the band dialed it back to a supple folk-rock sound, letting the exquisite tension of the verses build and build, the release finally coming as the entire theater sang the chorus together.
In the Riverside lobby afterwards, some veteran Zep fans were insisting it was the best version of “Ramble On” they had ever seen or heard live, including from Zeppelin itself. I’ll leave it to the hardcore fans to make that judgment, but will say that it was pure pleasure to tag along with Plant’s wandering musical spirit, especially when he brings it all back home.