NEW YORK — It’s not every day you get to see a rock ‘n’ roll legend such as Robert Plant in a speakeasy in New York City’s Lower East Side. Apparently, when rock gods manifest themselves amongst us, they like to keep it low-key.
This may explain Rounder Records’ choice of venue for Thursday’s (June 24) listening party unveiling Plant’s upcoming album, Band of Joy. To gain access to the event, dozens of music biz invitees went around to the side of a nondescript building on Norfolk Street, through an alleyway, up some steps and through an unmarked door.
Apparently, this location housed a bona-fide speakeasy in the prohibition era, and the chandeliered, dim-lit, split-level room has been decorated accordingly, with lots of dark wood offsetting red-and-gold wallpaper that looks like it came from a 1930s bordello. In this semi-clandestine spot, guests sat on dark leather couches and impressively upholstered seats to hear the new album for the first time.
The follow-up to Plant’s enormously successful 2007 outing with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, the album is set for a Sept. 14 release and finds the former Led Zeppelin frontman continuing his adventures in Americana music. But this time, instead of putting himself in the hands of star producer T Bone Burnett, he went into a Nashville studio with guitarist-producer and overall jack-of-all-trades Buddy Miller. And in place of Krauss’ ethereal tones are the poignant pipes of Patty Griffin. With a lineup that also features Nashville multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, Plant put together his Band of Joy — a name that goes back to Plant and late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s American-influenced, pre-Zep group.
As the album began to play, the ultra-urban atmosphere was swiftly transformed by the greasy, rootsy music wafting from the speakers. With Miller’s dirty, tremolo-laden guitar twined around Plant’s smoky voice, the first comparison called to mind was the sort of swamp-ambient atmospheres Daniel Lanois created on Emmylou Harris‘ 1995 Wrecking Ball album. That feeling intensified as country-gospel harmonies gave way to a deliriously dusty guitar solo on “House of Cards.” Things got scrappier on the country blues stomp “Central Two-O-Nine,” with banjo and acoustic guitar combining for an old-time string band vibe.
As Band of Joy moved along, one couldn’t help imagining Miller and Plant foraging through the musical underbrush of Americana for source material. Texas R&B singer Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love” became a rockabilly shuffle propelled by muscular bass lines and backlit by swampy, psychedelic wah-wah guitar. The Kelly Brothers’ Chicago soul nugget “I’m Falling in Love Again” shimmered with steel guitar licks and doo-wop backing vocals. Even a little-known Austin country-rock band, Milton Mapes was represented, with Plant’s Don Williams-meets-Rod Stewart take on their tune “The Only Sound That Matters.”
Things got earthier still on the spare, banjo-laced, traditional folk ballad “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday” and a haunted-house version of the old gospel number “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” Oddly, a cover of Townes Van Zandt‘s final composition, “Harm’s Swift Way” — a tune given to Plant by Van Zandt’s widow during the Raising Sand tour — was the closest-sounding thing to a contemporary country track, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine it becoming a hit for, say, Josh Turner, with a slightly less idiosyncratic arrangement.
After some luminous clouds of spacey guitar ended the closing track, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” the Rounder brass popped up for a few quick words. And then suddenly, rock royalty was in the room. Unassuming in T-shirt and jeans, Plant seemed slightly self-conscious about the circumstances and got a laugh from the crowd with his first words, “That was creepy.”
Plant, his head still framed by his trademark mane of long curls and his chin sporting some salt-and-pepper whiskers, joked that Band of Joy will keep him from “touring without a record,” adding “Even the Eagles can’t do that.” He observed that even though he recorded American music at the very beginning of his career, cutting a Young Rascals song (“You Better Run”) with the original Band of Joy, it took him four decades to figure out how to record with Americans.
After referring coyly to Zeppelin’s notorious 1970s exploits with American groupies, wryly quipping “but penicillin’s easily available now,” Plant enthusiastically extolled the virtues of his current collaborators. He described Miller as “a spectacular curator of great music,” noting that the guitarist helped lend a psychedelic tinge to the album because “underneath it all he’s a huge fan of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators.” He talked of how they cut all the tracks in just 10 days in Nashville, but they “sounded like Moby Grape outtakes” until Miller brought in Griffin to lend her “Cocteau Twins/Shangri-Las-type vocals” to the project.
A moment later, just as quickly and unobtrusively as he had appeared, Plant stepped out of sight, leaving a speakeasy full of blasé bizzers just a little star-struck.