NEW YORK — Heads turned in both the country and rock camps when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss teamed up for their Raising Sand album late last year. Sure, the former Led Zeppelin frontman had dipped his toe into Americana on 2002′s Dreamland, covering the likes of Bob Dylan and Jesse Colin Young, and Krauss has been known to cover the occasional Allman Brothers or Todd Rundgren tune. As a duo, however, Plant and Krauss entered into a sonic space different from anything to which either was accustomed.
The odd couple is taking their act on the road across the U.S. this summer, and Tuesday’s (June 10) concert in New York City — the first of two nights at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater — made it clear how the concert stage spotlights not only the pair’s individual personalities but the new sonic territory they’ve staked out together.
The moody, low-key atmosphere of the album is faithfully recreated onstage, with Raising Sand producer T Bone Burnett serving as guitarist and musical director and the Dennis Crouch/Jay Bellerose rhythm section back in the saddle (with considerable spice added by all-star multi-instrumentalists Buddy Miller and Stuart Duncan). The evening’s set list encompassed Raising Sand‘s all-American patchwork of (mostly vintage) folk, blues, country and gospel, expanding on it with additional material like George Jones’ “One Woman Man,” the traditional hymn “Green Pastures” and reconfigured tunes from Krauss and Plant’s respective pasts.
Both singers stuck close to the vocal dynamic they created in the studio — a delicate, warm-but-haunting murmur. For his part, Plant, pushing 60, completely ignored his rock-god status. The stratospheric wail and shirtless-shaman image of old were nowhere in evidence. Modestly clad in jeans and a loose-fitting Tony Soprano-style shirt, Plant never left his lower register, eliciting hopeful cheers from the faithful every time he even teased the upper rungs of his range. And in deference to his partner, he conscientiously avoided the kind of stage-stealing moves that are doubtlessly still second nature to him.
Krauss, who at 36 could be Plant’s daughter, looked rather rock ‘n’ roll herself in her thigh-high, skintight boots, and she matched the bearded, lion-maned Englishman step for step, providing sisterly support when appropriate and often soaring above him to hit the kind of high notes the Led Zep diehards in the crowd probably spent the evening praying for Plant to unleash.
The film-noir-style mood lighting contributed to the music’s spooky atmosphere as Plant and Krauss maintained a tight harmony on the New Orleans R&B nugget, “Rich Woman.” They maintained the tandem approach for two more tunes, the Ray Charles stomper “Leave My Woman Alone” (another non-album selection) and a deconstructed, bluegrass-tinged version of the Zeppelin blues-rock barnstormer “Black Dog.” This initial salvo of songs served not only to underscore Krauss and Plant’s artistic unity but established their modus operandi of adding an angular, stripped-down, almost-sinister feel to often-upbeat material, turning the honky-tonk into a haunted house. Plant summed it up well when he drolly announced the ensemble’s intention to “kick ass non-stop in a very demure and appropriate fashion.”
From this point on, Krauss and Plant mostly took turns fronting the band a couple of songs at a time. The bluegrass heroine delivered Mac Wiseman’s old-school high-lonesome kiss-off “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” (further non-Raising Sand material) and folk-rocker/former Byrd Gene Clark’s “Through the Morning, Through the Night” with equal panache. Plant worked up a good head of steam on a simmering version of New Orleans R&B king Allen Toussaint’s “Fortune Teller” and broke Led Zep’s “Black Country Woman” down to banjo-pickin’ backwoods basics. As on several other tunes, Krauss’s fiery fiddling kicked up a storm, too.
After taking a break during which Burnett led the band through his own “Bon Temps Rouler” and “Shut It Tight,” Plant and Krauss gradually turned up the heat over the course of the show’s second half. Krauss’ chilling take on Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” raised goose-bumps across the audience. Plant dialed into his inner witch doctor for his hypnotic interpretation of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’.” A roar (and several celebratory fists) went up through the crowd as the duo launched into another Led Zeppelin staple, “Battle of Evermore,” with Krauss taking Sandy Denny’s original part like she’d been waiting for the opportunity all her life. The set proper ended on an almost anomalous up-tempo note with a chugging, rockabilly-revved romp through the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On),” during which the somber stage backdrop dramatically shifted to reveal a glitter-spangled curtain that looked like it was sewn together from the entirety of Elvis Presley’s arena-era wardrobe.
Returning for their encore, the pair brought the show’s energy up to its highest level with a rollicking reinvention of a Staple Singers soul-gospel chestnut, “Don’t Knock,” with their bandmates pitching in for a classic call-and-response vocal exchange. Miller lent his twangy pipes again on “One Woman Man,” as he and his fearless leaders tossed the lead vocal back and forth between the three of them. Things closed in an elegiac manner with “Your Long Journey,” the tune that ends the album. Miller strummed a plaintive autoharp as Plant and Krauss entwined their voices like two sides of a story being told at the same time. After gently caressing the Doc Watson ballad of love, loss and eternity, they reluctantly relinquished their hold on the audience members, who were left to begin adjusting their concepts of what American musical traditions can mean in the 21st century, especially when they’re re-imagined by a British hard-rock king and a bluegrass-pop crossover queen.