In the annals of popular music, has there ever been a more successful confluence of two existing solo brands than Robert Plant and Alison Krauss? Pretty much as a rule, duos start out in that configuration, then crash in clashes of egos; they’re not things that begin 20, 30, 40 years into respective careers. The long-lost fad of CSNY-style supergroups is one thing, but superduos never really became a thing at all, at least in that same joining-of-the-titans sense. Apparently there’s an eternal shortage of superstars willing to put themselves in an ongoing creative situation that could result at any moment in that scariest of scenarios for an alpha creative: a tie.
Yet here, like kismet, are Plant and Krauss, the exception to the rule. And here like Brigadoon they are, too, destined to pop up every 14 years or so, as they did Thursday at the Greek in L.A., appearing there for the first time since they were Grammy royals back in 2008. It would be nice if everyone could set their alarms for the next occasion for much sooner than than 2036. This time next summer, say, would be fine.) But sometimes it’s the anomalousness of a coming-together that helps make the magic. These two feel born to be together … occasionally. Thursday’s show felt like home, and like Halley’s comet.
Their sophomore album as a duo, last fall’s “Raise the Roof,” felt very much like the belated sequel it was to 2007’s “Raising Sand,” the collection that won them six Grammys, including the two highest honors, album and record of the year. The newer album has not been in any danger of achieving those same pop-culture-phenomenon heights, and no one expected it to, given how wonderfully weird it was that a record as rich, subtle and peculiar as the first took off the way it did, to became the coffee-table CD of its day. But the magic hadn’t worn off for fans of the pairing, who loved that the follow-up had T Bone Burnett back producing, was recorded with mostly the same players under the same spontaneous conditions, guys who 14 years earlier had seemed to be inventing their own new musical language, using ancient grains. Both albums are all-covers collections (except for a single Burnett/Plant co-write on the latest one, “High and Lonesome”). And both seem to be taking place deep in the holler, somewhere near a swampland and in outer space all at once.
The touring unit is not quite the same this time around, though, at least in its leadership, which might’ve made a scattered few fans who pay attention to these sort of things wonder if they were going to be getting something like the Broadway-road-show version of what they got a decade and a half ago. Burnett, no fan of touring, is not on board as band leader and guitarist this time; neither is Buddy Miller, the featured soloist in the concerts of the late 2000s. But it’s no disparagement to either of those deserving legend to say that the solution to filling those shoes this time works just as well, or better. JD McPherson is the lead guitarist and fantastic opening act, and while that’s quite a break for him, it’s also a boon for the audience, many of whom are getting their first exposure to one of the best there is in American rock ‘n’ roll.
McPherson really does help raise the roof, speaking of that latest album title, with a soloing style that’s just a little less indebted to the moody tremolo of the swamp — though he can do that, too — and more to a virtuosic but super-charged take on the rockabilly/country/early R&B-rooted stuff he’s been skillfully updating for the 21st century for several albums now. He highly energizes several portions of the show without ever seeming like he’s out to steal it. You could see Plant’s and Krauss’ admiration in how, after usually singing apart from one another, they’d step back together into the shadows to look at him like proud parents.
Not that McPherson’s become a favorite child yet, or is likely to, since Plant, at least, made it unabashedly clear in his band introductions who’s at the top of the hierarchy. Jay Bellerose, a recurring figure in Burnett’s stable of musicians, was introduced by the former Led Zeppelin frontman as “my favorite musician in the world,” and it’s not a big mystery why someone who’s worked with some of the greatest guitar players of all time might say that about a drummer, if it’s this one in particular. If anyone could ever be described as “on the beat, and offbeat,” it’s Bellerose, who rarely resorts to sticks as long as there are mallets or brushes in supply, and who is rarely playing a rhythm you might feel with 100% certainty you’ve heard on stage before. He’s the key linguist making Plant and Krauss’ music feel like it’s discovered an unknown dialect.
At the same time, he’s not doing anything to overshadow some pretty famous fellow veterans of this ensemble: Stuart Duncan, who plays second fiddle, second guitar and first mandolin and dobro, and the two (count ’em) two bassists, Dennis Crouch (“king of the stand-up bass,” said Plant) and Viktor Krauss, brother of the frontwoman, who also handles the extremely spare keyboards that come in just about as an afterthought.
A second fiddle means there must be a first, and needless to say that speaks to Krauss, who came up in the bluegrass scene as a fiddler first and vocalist second, before becoming America’s singer of choice of spooky-sweet pop-country ballads. Krauss doesn’t actually have credits for violin on a lot of the songs on the two albums she’s done with Plant. But he is the primary lead singer on a lot of the material in the show — especially with three Zeppelin songs being part of the set list — and she does need something to do with her hands. So does Plant, for that matter, but in his case, it’s maracas, and in hers, it’s a world-class instrumentalist bringing quite a bit more of what brought her to the dance to this pairing in the concert setting.
With Duncan, Krauss formed a string section for what probably counted as the highlight of the show for many — a version of Zeppelin’s classic “When the Levee Breaks” that managed to cleverly interpolate some of the instrumental parts from a separate Zeppelin song, “Friends.” It turns out Krauss is well capable of making her instrument feel as much Middle Eastern as middle-Tennessean. Anyone who wants to name “Levee” as a peak moment can’t be blamed, but the real high point, exercising some editorial prerogative here, was the Zep cover that immediately preceded it, “The Battle of Evermore,” in which it was Krauss’ voice making the substantial contribution to a ’70s rock standard, her belt making the recorded version feel forever like it’s missing something going forward.
There was yet a third Zeppelin chestnut, too — “Rock and Roll,” placed much earlier in the set as the fifth song, perhaps to assure the audience that Plant would not be boycotting their youthful favorites. Unlike the perhaps surprisingly faithful attitude taken on the other two more mystical-feeling Zep numbers, “Rock and Roll” deviated to be turned into a pure country hoedown. It might’ve been a long time since we did that, too.
Playing twin violins on the few occasions they did, Krauss and Duncan made for such a strong two-person string section that you almost felt the band might be able to get away with a properly majestic “Kashmir.” This was not attempted. Nor was anything from Krauss’ solo/Union Station catalog, which she seems to have no interest in bringing into these joint shows. That, along with the fact that Plant carries the weight of speaking to the audience, might foment the idea that he is the leader of this pack, if there is one. (Burnett, in talking with Variety for a profile of Plant and Krauss last year, insisted it’s really closer to being her.) The dynamics that they’ve set out for their joint touring personas, at least, became clear when Plant mentioned how much chattier she used to be in performance and asked, “Remember when you used to talk?” “No,” came her inevitable answer.
Knowing that one of Plant’s main self-directives is to not repeat himself too much, it really may be unlikely that we’ll see them suddenly adopt themselves to an open-air circuit, again and again. So this tour provides a good chance to relish arguably the most dignified rocker of his generation doing what he does, which of course is a far calmer performance than what would have transpired in golden-god days. Occasionally he’d do a high ad-lib on a Zeppelin song that hinted at the days when he and Janis Joplin jockeyed for the same upper register. But it’s been decades since he made the wise choice to settle into sub-falsetto octaves that would serve him well in the future — and that are his most beautiful anyway. He has made the further choice to partner with a soprano … but it sure seems like there’s a fleeting moment or two where you notice he’s suddenly taken the high part in their harmonies.
Their 2022 has taken an unusual path, with the eastern part of the country being the only routing that was announced at first, throwing Los Angeles, et al. into a panic, before the west got what was coming to it after a European interlude. L.A represented the third stop on the second leg of their U.S. tour, which will end back in New York at the Beacon on Sept. 12. One difference between the tour’s first and second halves is that three songs have been dropped along the way, taking it down from 20 to 17. It would have been nice to see the version of the show that ended more sentimentally, with Maria Muldaur’s “Someone Was Watching Over Me” (since dropped) as a final encore number.
But it’s hard to imagine the show ending more perfectly than it now does, even if — or especially because — it closes with such a sense of high spirits and even some wit to it. The main set closed with a rocking version of the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone,” which from its title alone feels like a fait accompli closer. But the encore pick feels like a funny rejoinder: “Can’t Let Go,” their cover of Lucinda Williams’ cover of a Randy Weeks tune. It’d be a natural outro anyway, as a sing-along that also gives the guitarist McPherson one last chance to sting like a bee, too. But the title also knowingly, and a little bit cheekily, speaks to how much this is a show the audience really doesn’t want to let go of. Let’s hope they don’t, either, regardless of whether 14-year absences make the heart grow fonder.