ROBERT PLANT & ALISON KRAUSS with T BONE BURNETT at Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lakeshore West), Monday (July 14), 7:30 pm. $39.50-$99.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
On their own, Led Zeppelin’s voice of thunder Robert Plant and contemporary bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss are among the most respected icons in their respective fields. She’s a little bit country and he’s the hip-thrusting essence of rock ’n’ roll.
Their strong identification with such disparate forms of music just makes their unusual studio throwdown for the haunting Raising Sand (Rounder) album seem that much stranger. Yet their recording debut, with marginal commercial radio support, has been an astonishing left-field hit.
Producer T Bone Burnett knows something about making those “flukes” happen, having knocked out a multi-platinum smasheroo with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and he deserves some of the credit for the surprising results of Raising Sand.
He not only recorded the sessions in Nashville using his own private collection of arcane analog gear, but also assembled the band and suggested most of the traditional folk and blues tunes on which Plant and Krauss could agree.
“When they first called me up saying they wanted to record an album,” recalls Burnett from Los Angeles, “Robert was on tour in Europe, Alison was in Nashville, and I was in British Columbia, so we started having conference calls and sending music back and forth trying to decide on what songs to do. Robert chose a few of the New Orleans things, Alison had some ideas of her own, and I just tried to bridge their two worlds. Once we had the repertoire nailed down, the rest was easy.”It wasn’t so simple for Plant. Singing songs he’d never sung before with Krauss and a bunch of musicians he’d never met, Plant couldn’t have been further out of his element in Nashville. But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Within an hour of musicians coming into the Sound Emporium studio where T Bone had set up his equipment,” says Plant from a tour stop in Arizona, “it was like dropping some water on the inner sleeve of In Through The Out Door – all the colours suddenly appeared.
“There was this amazing sound, very swampy and forlorn. We started with the song Polly, which I had to sing in front of all these people I didn’t know. A tough call, and I felt some trepidation, but I wouldn’t have agreed to the project if there hadn’t been some risk involved. I want to go places that I haven’t been and try things I haven’t done, just to see if I can do ’em.”
Contrary to what many expected, Raising Sand isn’t any sort of conventional country-style duets album where the male sings a verse, the female sings a reply and they meet in harmony on the chorus. Instead, you hear Plant singing with Krauss lending backing support and vice versa, but very little actual harmonizing. It’s closer in spirit to an Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan recording than to any country classic.
“There’s a good reason why there’s no close harmony singing on the album; I’ve never ever sung with anybody else, ever, let alone harmonized with someone,” Plant continues. “The song Thank You on Led Zeppelin II had a little harmony part on it, but I think Jimmy Page just brought in one of his roadies for that. I’ve got a characteristic voice that people can recognize, but I’ve never been coached in proper vocal techniques, and harmony singing has never been part of my world.
“Beyond Alison’s amazing range and pitch, I really love the quality of her voice and her whole approach, which is a great contrast to my style, so interesting things can happen without me having to rave. Since John (Bonham) passed away, I’ve had to carry the show, so it’s wonderful to step back and let someone else go off.”
With most male-female duo projects, success depends more on the chemistry between the singing partners than on their individual skills, and it helps if the audience believes there may be more going on between the two offstage. Loretta Lynn’s early duets with the much older Ernest Tubb never really caught fire like those she did with Conway Twitty. Rumours that Lynn and Twitty were having an affair, however unfounded, didn’t hurt sales.
“I’m wondering whether we ought to try that,” cackles Plant. “No, I’m just joking. I’m not sure what it is we’ve got, but whatever it is, it’s infectious, because women keep screaming at our shows. The other night, Alison had this question-mark look and asked, ‘Why are all the ladies yelling so much and why are they wearing hardly any clothes?’ I said, ‘They must be Union Station fans, dear. They’re here to see you.’ Alison enjoys lecturing me about what I’ve done in the past, things I’m doing now and what might come around the corner.”
Reports from the tour suggest that Plant and Krauss are taking a more freewheeling approach to the material in concert. And whereas Plant’s performances remained uncharacteristically subdued throughout the album, he’s been going where the urge takes him onstage.
“The transformation has been absolutely unbelievable. To me, it feels like what we started has suddenly come out of the ground and shaken its limbs so that all the preconceptions about what we might do together have fallen away and we’re moving forward. There are way more fireworks than on the record. At times, it gets quite psychedelic.
“Behind me I can hear Dennis Crouch, a well-respected bassist in country music circles, prodding me on, shouting, ‘C’mon, baby, baby!’ If I let out a whoop, the whole band kicks it up a gear. There are two or three explosive moments each night when Alison becomes Etta James. As we hit the microphone, she gives me the eye, and I’ll take it up an octave and she’ll go above me.
“Last night at the end of one song, I just let loose, and afterwards she said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were doing that?’ But since when have I ever known what I’m going to do in the middle of a song? I might see a woman in the third row and go off tangentially where I think I’m 19 again, belting out the finale of You Shook Me. It happens.”
Rocker Robert Plant recalls his time hanging out with the mods, Steve Marriott and the Small Faces.