Despite his status as one of the mightier rock star figures in the British rock pantheon, Robert Plant’s musical compass has always tilted towards America. He’s always been, among other things, heeding strong American blues influences and “going to Chicago” — to quote the old Led Zeppelin-ized blues tune “When the Levee Breaks,” a deep cut at last week’s potent Santa Barbara Bowl show with empathetic partner Alison Krauss.
That song, transformed from the Zep original into a hypnotic swampy dirge (replete with Stuart Duncan’s stunning fiddle solo), became an anthem of angst during Hurricane Katrina, down New Orleans way. Of course, Plant’s current American soil fixation is well-planted in Nashville, reconnecting with bluegrass deity Krauss in a richer and more empathetic way than on their novel first encounter, on 2007’s Raising Sands (landing them at the Bowl in 2008).
This season, the deepening link between the supposed “odd couple” resulted in last year’s acclaimed album Raising the Roof, a promise filled by the pair and their crack band at the Bowl, in what was certainly a season highlight.
In general, the Plant/Krauss enterprise is currently raising the stakes within the captivating musical entity they have become married into.
Backed by a band including ace guitarist JD McPherson (who opened the night with a set of his retro-billy finery), multi-instrumentalist Viktor Krauss and go-to inventive drummer Jay Bellerose, the pair wrapped their voices in delectable harmony for much of the night, on themes by the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles and welcome tunes by underrated folk-rock pioneer Bert (Pentangle) Jansch.
In these Plant-Krauss shows, a high-water mark of curiosity greets Led Zeppelin classics retooled in new Nashville-ian clothing. Back in 2008, our ears embraced the aptly backwoods redux of “Black Dog.” This time around, the deconstruction-refitting honors went to the epic late-show anchor of “Levee,” the inherently folk-grounded “The Battle of Evermore” – with Krauss nailing the original Sandy Denny harmony part — and also a disarming, un-rocked roots version of “Rock and Roll.” One could imagine master drummer — and student of drumming — Bellerose fighting an impulse to tap into John Bonham’s signature work on the original, but his part was a brand new bag.
Come encore time, “Americana” queen Lucinda Williams’ songbook had the last word. Her juicy “Can’t Let Go” was handled with harmonizing care and expressive gutsiness by the Plant/Krauss dynamic duo. They really must go on meeting like this.