Sunday, June 15, 2008

Their Long Journey: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Live at Merriweather, 6.13.08

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss opened and closed their set Friday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion with the same two songs that begin and end their 2007 album, “Raising Sand.” Inhabiting the two hours in between “Rich Woman” and “Your Long Journey” was one of the best concert experiences of my life.

When I bought the tickets several months ago, I was disappointed the only stop near my home on this summer’s tour was an outdoor shed, when in so many other cities Plant and Krauss are playing smaller theaters. It didn’t take long, though, to realize I had nothing to worry about. Sure, small spaces are always nice, but it’s not like these two artists (especially Plant) aren’t used to winning over big crowds. If anything, witnessing these hushed songs stretch, fill, and enrapture such a large space was even more impressive and inspiring.

What made it even better was how they did it on their own terms. “Raising Sand” is a purposefully quiet album, built on the tension of restraint. This vibe continues into the live setting—rather than trying to rock and wail over top of the drunken rabble, their controlled performance demands attention from everyone. This was especially true of Krauss, standing up there in a flowing floor-length dress that radiated in the spotlight and wisped around her in the breeze. When she sings solo (think “Trampled Rose”) no red-blooded man can help but have the air driven from his lungs. It’s like she calls the audience to her and makes the venue smaller just by the clarity and beauty of her voice.

Plant’s name may come first in the marquee, but Krauss held the stage solo much more often. It’s her territory, after all—which he freely admits. Just before a tremendous version of “Nothin’,” he took a moment to share how nervous he was back when the “Sand” sessions were getting underway, as this Deep South bluegrass and folk—so unabashedly Americana—was a big stretch for him.

What I loved most about Plant’s performance was how generous he was onstage in relation to Krauss. “Nothin’” proved he can still bring it with nearly all the lion-maned bravado of three decades’ past, but he so clearly yields ground to Krauss when they sing together—and she back to him—so as neither one overwhelms the other, which could be so easy (especially for him). One of my favorite illustrations of this dynamic came early on during the Krauss-fronted “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; while she remained in the spotlight at the front of the stage, Plant wandered to a microphone toward the back—over her shoulder and in the relative dark—and his accompaniment drifted in and out from there. This gracious give and take makes the moments when they both really let loose together—such as a thrilling version of Plant’s solo effort “In the Mood”—that much more remarkable.

My favorite part of the show came as the main set drew to a close, when the duo offered up a signature trio of songs. It started with “Nothin’,” Plant’s showcase on “Sand” and the closest he ever comes on that album to Led Zeppelin; when played live, the band (led masterfully by T. Bone Burnett) emphasizes even more the drastic differences between the song’s quick-change soft and loud moments.

That led into unquestionably my touchstone moment of the night: Plant and Krauss together on “The Battle of Evermore.” You really should go listen to this track from “Led Zeppelin IV” right now, and imagine Krauss’ angelic voice filling in on the background vocals. I’ve been listening to this song—in all its different iterations—for 15 years, and yet for some reason it never occurred to me how perfect it would be for this tour. When I heard the opening strains last night, the shocking of the connection between Krauss, Plant, and the song nearly brought tears to my eyes. I’ve rarely had a moment like it in more than 10 years of concertgoing. When they followed with “Please Read the Letter,” my favorite track off the album … well, it was just perfect.

There were so many other great moments, though. Their holding-back-so-much-it-hurts take on Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” is such a winner; on the complete opposite end of that spectrum is the rollicking, joyous version they’re doing of Zep’s “Black Country Woman,” a deep, deep cut off my favorite Zeppelin album, “Physical Graffiti.” I mentioned Plant’s “In the Mood” earlier, but what takes that tune over the top is the splicing in midsong of Krauss’ fervent take on the folk song “Mattie Groves.” And it goes without saying, I suppose, that her “Down to the River to Pray” is a showstopper.

Besides the roles they choose to play inside these songs, it’s just as fascinating to see how Plant and Krauss’ onstage dynamic works itself out, and how they challenge and complement each other. Plant is obviously over the moon in love—not with Krauss, but with the artistic endeavor they’ve undertaken. He’s been chatting in the press about how fulfilling this experiment has been, and the pleasure is written all over his face. There’s no fake, pandering banter between the two of them, which would so cheapen the entire thing. They never even address each other directly, and only rarely do they glance in the other’s direction except to mark cues. It’s clear both of them have found something here, made all the more special by how unlooked-for it was; they will have nothing to do with anything that would tarnish it in any way. The work stands on its own and does all the communicating between them that's needed.

I often wonder if Plant regrets any of the orgiastic excesses he engaged in during Zeppelin’s heyday, and what he thinks about those times when he’s being truly honest with himself. Maybe this album, this tour, this collaboration, is his way of seeking atonement through something so obviously pure and grounded in such sincerity. Of course, he may not regret a thing and “Raising Sand” is simply the most interesting thing he’s done in awhile.

Whatever it is that lies behind those eyes, Plant looks like a child filled with wonderment on Christmas morning, only he’s old enough and been around enough to know what a gift this experience truly is. He seems to be treasuring every second of it.

As have I.

Hooray! Found the setlist here!

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Running Time: 2 hours

Main Set:
Rich Woman
Leave My Woman Alone
Black Dog
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us
Through the Morning, Through the Night
So Long, Goodbye to You
Fortune Teller
In the Mood/Matty Groves
Black Country Woman
Bon Temps Rouler
Shut It Tight
Trampled Rose
Green Pastures
Down to the River to Pray
Killing the Blues
The Battle of Evermore
Please Red the Letter
Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)

You Don't Knock
One Woman Man
Your Long Journey

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