Saturday, February 23, 2008

Crossroads, Indeed: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Live (on TV)

Robert Plant was absolutely right to screw the Led Zeppelin reunion in favor of touring with new musical partner Alison Krauss. This is the show to see this summer (tour dates are here and here, and tix go on sale soon). This is here, this is now, this is fresh, this is exciting, this is challenging, this is progressive. This is moving forward, not looking back.

Earlier this month CMT aired Plant and Krauss’ episode of “Crossroads,” and it is a thing to behold. The show features several cuts off the duo’s 2007 collaboration, “Raising Sand,” but also includes versions of the singers’ own tunes—performed by their counterpart. Plant’s solo take on “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” is stirring, but it’s Krauss who will drive the breath from your lungs with her achingly gorgeous performance of “When the Levee Breaks,” violin solo included. And then the two combine to conquer Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” which starts out quietly with a banjo, then simmers to an overflowing boil by the end as the rest of the band kicks in to surround and support the two vocalists.

Certainly not to be outdone, however, are the choice cuts from “Raising Sand.” Lead single “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” kicks the show off on the right foot, while “Rich Woman” shuffles along with even more power than on CD. Plant’s “Please Read the Letter,” my favorite track on the album, is a showstopper.

Sprinkled in between the songs are clips of Plant and Krauss sitting around a table talking about the project, and their discussion provides insight into not only the recording of the album, but themselves, as well. They relate how producer T. Bone Burnett challenged each of them to break down their own boundaries. For Plant, that meant restraining his trademark “masculine” bravado and finding out where he fit in this new style of song; for Krauss, it meant matching Plant’s intensity and singing songs from a narrative male perspective.

The dynamics between the duo onstage are fascinating to watch, too, as this taping had to be one of the first times (if not the very first) the two had performed these songs in front of an audience. I don’t know if the cuts were revealed on the show in the order they were played live, but it sure seemed like Krauss warmed up and got more comfortable with the whole thing as the night wore on; Plant, meanwhile, seemed like he was doing his very best to contain his natural lionine stage persona so as not to overwhelm the whole process. The tension serves both of them well.

And the music. Wow, as is typically the case with great performers, it’s even better in the moment than it is on the CD. The band (and especially Plant) cuts loose a bit more and gives the songs a bit more heft, more straightforward power (I’m thinking specifically here of “Rich Woman”). I look forward to hearing “Nothin’” this summer, as it is the heaviest track on the album and should simply explode live on stage.

So of course I’m recommending you watch “Crossroads” and check out the tour if it comes your way. But more than anything, if you haven’t heard “Raising Sand” yet, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. “Crossroads” just confirms what I’m starting to realize: This is one of my favorite albums of all time.

UPDATE: For some reason, this is one of the most popular posts on the site and people are landing here from all over. First off, welcome, and thanks for reading. Second, if you're interested in my thoughts on actually seeing Plant and Krauss in person, you can read them here.

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