Robert Plant and Band of Joy, North Mississippi Allstars
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
Robert Plant and the Band of Joy conjured more than a few spirited and joyful moments during their concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Fri. Feb. 4. A sold-out crowd danced, clapped, and occasionally sang along with the six-piece ensemble. Many were simply amazed to be standing in the presence of Led Zeppelin's legendary lead singer.
Opening act North Mississippi Allstars strolled out right on time. Unexpectedly, they were a mere duo of guitarist/vocalist Luther Dickinson and drummer Cody Dickinson (there was no sign of bassist Chris Chew). Luther casually greeted the audience, cranked up his vintage six-string through two small amps, and jumped into a swingin' groove. With no other accompaniment and all the sonic room he could use, Cody took advantage of the setting, filling space with an extra tom rolls, cymbal accents, and flourishes.
Highlights of the Dickinsons' set included nasty-toned renditions of boogie tunes penned by R.L. Burnside, several edgy numbers from their latest album Keys to the Kingdom, and a few Hendrix-styled bursts of psychedelic riffery. Cody's punctuated slide work was quite impressive, but Luther's brief, Bonham-esque drum solo and effects-laden washboard solo provided the trippiest moments and nearly stole the show.
Under a handsome set decorated with low-hanging lamps, spotlights, and a tall banner featuring the artwork from Plant's recent Band of Joy album, the band took their places in tight formation. They opened with "Down to the Sea," a song from Plant's 1993 solo album Fate of Nations (re-released in 2007). Heavy, twangy, and a little bit spooky, it turned out to be one of the most thumping tunes of the set, with guitarists Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott driving things at a high volume with twangy tones. Drummer Marco Giovino demonstrated his flexible approach on an array of extra percussion instruments. Plant looked genuinely at ease and happy to be singing as a he casually sauntered around center stage. His delivery was emotive and crisp.
Zep fans were delighted to hear the next two songs — mellowed-out, slowed-down reworkings of "Black Dog" and "Houses of the Holy." Vocalist/guitarist Patty Griffin added soaring harmonies with Miller and Scott occasionally pitching in as well. "Gallows Pole" and "Tangerine" also received the Band of Joy treatment later in the set.
They hit several from the Band of Joy album, including "Central Two-O-Nine," which lumbered at a cool pace with the banjo at the lead, "Angel Dance" (originally by Los Lobos), and the harmony-laden cover of Richard Thompson's "House of Cards." Miller and Scott navigated some low notes and gnarly tones on the dark and stormy "Monkey" (originally performed by Low).
Plant handed the main mic over to Scott to lead the band through the strummy traditional "Satisfied Mind." The slow "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" provided a spiritual moment as well. A laid-back revision of "Tall Cool One" sounded far better than the fancy original.
The ensemble started out with a full sound, but the mix tilted out of balance as the set progressed. Through the second half of the show, bassist Byron House was inaudible and Giovino's kick drum was barely present. On the other hand, the guitar work of Miller and Scott became increasingly and almost distractingly dominant. Maybe the point was to heavily emphasize Plant's vocals, the group's harmonies, and the countrified string work.
In the lobby after the show, some musicians in attendance argued that there was "too much Nashville" going on with Plant's new band. Maybe Plant's unusual assemblage of honky-tonk riffs, Appalachian stylings, and Southern brogues isn't so much about copping a Nashville style as it is about digging deeper into a new vein of authentic roots music. Either way, he looked overjoyed to be in the middle of it.