Birmingham has changed a lot in the last twenty years or so, and I was most aware of it last night (5 May, 2008), when my folks and I were in the city to catch Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at the National Indoor Arena.
Like Plant, we hail from West Bromwich in the heart of the Black Country (indeed, my dad frequented the same drinking hole as Planty) and wondered what the leonine rock god must make of the changes to the ‘second city’ since he last strolled its streets. Gone are the grubby factories and warehouses, replaced by shimmering glass towers and a slick, cosmopolitan atmosphere. We were certainly struck anew by the city’s transformation as we wandered down the canal-side before the gig.
It seems Brum is not the only thing to have changed – there’s no trace of a Black Country twang in Plant’s voice and his partnership with Krauss on ‘Raising Sand’ is a departure from the heavy rock of his Led Zeppelin days. It’s also the stuff of music critics’ wet dreams: a beautiful bluegrass angel collaborating with the hoary old man of rock to make one of the finest and unlikely parings in recent musical times.
Anticipation was high for this, Plant’s homecoming performance. From a purely anthropological bent, there was also much fun to be had in identifying fans there for Alison Krauss and those there for Robert Plant. Needless to say there were ponytails aplenty on men of a certain age and later in the evening, some head-banging in the aisles to some of the rockier numbers. Of course I can only speculate that they were Led Zep fans …
But before I discuss the main act … the support. This was Scott Matthews, Wolverhampton-based urban-folk troubadour whose band and he were, he cheerily confessed, ‘shitting ourselves’. The local feel of one up-and-coming Black Country lad supporting another made good, set a nice tone and the audience warmed to Matthews fast. He opened with the beautiful “Dream Song”, arguably his best work to date, and gave a soulful and professional support to the main act.
As “Rich Woman’s” swampy guitars kicked in, Plant and Krauss crept out from either side of the stage each looking a million dollars. There’s a strange kind of symmetry seeing them live, all big blond hair and even bigger voices, although this is as far as the visual resemblance goes. In her diaphanous, floaty dress with her perfectly coiffed hair, Alison Krauss looked like she’d been whisked in from Stepford; whereas Robert Plant, wearing block colours and some pretty fine winkle pickers, looked every inch the rock god. He trod the stage like a caged animal for the first few songs, a mesmerising “Sister Rosetta” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night”, and I like to think it did the old boy some good when he finally let rip on tracks like “Nothin” – it certainly looked and sounded like it!
The two were on fire; their voices were nothing short of awesome and melted into each other’s tones perfectly. “Stick with Me Baby” was mesmerising. I’d expected them to sound good, but this good? Krauss’s demure presence belied a torrent of feeling conveyed through her singing which was by turns eerie and angelic. Her rendition of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” was goose-bump inducing and her violin playing exceptional. Her voice was as sweet as honey but more penetrating than any I’ve heard in a long time, filling every crevice of the cavernous NIA.
Despite the obvious difference between her vocals and Plant’s blues wail, his voice was equally on form. He sang as if he wanted to tear the audience’s eardrums out on tracks like “Gone, Gone Gone” and an old Led Zeppelin track (that’s the head-bangers happy then).
By far his finest moment was on “Fortune Teller”, an amusing old standard on which Alison supplemented his bluesy delivery with haunting backing vocals. Of this track he confided that he’d first come across it in the ’60s and that only two others knew it – he got ‘free prescriptions and a long memory’ he self-deprecatingly joked.
On other songs his sound was more restrained, allowing the gravely textures of his voice to reveal themselves in a wonderfully new way. The two were generous to each others’ performances, stepping back to spotlight the others’ strengths through songs which ranged from the old standards from “Raising Sand” and beyond, to blues, country and soul.
The legendary T-Bone Burnett, a black-clad, narrow and angular presence on the stage, was met with adulatory cries of ‘you the man T-Bone!’ from an enthusiastic crowd when he performed two of his own tracks. Krauss nodded to his producing the score to ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, on which Krauss sings, when she threw in “Down to the River to Pray” with Plant joining in for backing vocals.
To see the three on stage together, their chemistry and obvious ease with each other, was a live crystallization of the successes of ‘Raising Sand’ and was really something. In short, the gig was a triumph. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss made it look so easy and surpassed the elegance of their recordings. Long may the partnership between the bluegrass beauty and rock beast continue.
By: Lindsey Davis