Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: What’s Old Is New Again

PlantKraussWeb.jpgPhotos by Pamela Springsteen 

When talk began to spread of an impending musical collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, it seemed to some an odd pairing.  Plant, the rock-n-roll icon with an infamous flair for excess during his heyday with Led Zeppelin, and Krauss, the sweet and angelic leader of bluegrass band Union Station, would seem to have little in common.  Yet, both possess a deep-rooted love for Americana music, and a kindred spirit when it comes to taking the old and making it new again.

Before kicking off their initial tour on April 19 in Louisville, Krauss was quoted as saying, “When my manager first phoned and told me Robert wanted to speak to me, I thought, ‘What does he want?’ Then when we met I was real surprised at how passionate he was about all kinds of music.  He loved the great bluegrass banjo player, Ralph Stanley.  Robert talked about driving through the hills of east Tennessee, listening to Ralph on the radio.”

The project began quietly, with Plant and T Bone Burnett joining Krauss at her Nashville home. Burnett lined out chord changes on guitar, while Plant and Krauss started to sing, sitting side by side, with no microphones and no effects.  “The idea,” Burnett recalls, “was to take them both out of their comfort zone, to take us all out of our comfort zones.” 

Reflecting on the early days of this new union, Plant has said, “At the beginning of this project I didn’t feel particularly confident.  I felt sensitive about the idea of singing with someone else because I’ve never really done that before.  Every other group I’ve been in, the harmonies were the last thing anybody would think about. I don’t get nervous really. But I realized once I started sitting down on that couch, I was in for a ride.”

At their core, Plant and Krauss are a pair of devout music lovers, intent on simply making music for the sake of music itself.  Together, they have created something unexpected in this day and age – music that is not only new, but is also alive, prosperous and thriving, an entirely new slice of Americana the likes of which no one could have possibly imagined.  No one that is, with the possible exception of Burnett.

“The sound of this record (Raising Sand) was something I’ve been working on for ten years,” he says,  “to change the way people hear music.  Basically, I am trying to minimize attack and maximize tone.  For the past fifty years recordings have focused more and more on attack.  Initially this was because of the limitations of the vinyl medium, but even when CDs arrived with their wider dynamic range all that happened was that people kept making things brighter and louder, which is fatiguing and makes you go deaf.  The low frequencies are actually where the heart of the music lies.”

Heart is something that pours not only Plant,Krauss, and Burnett, but also the rest of the band Burnett assembled to tour behind the record.  The band is comprised of Stuart Duncan (backing vocals, banjo, fiddle,, guitar, mandolin, and  ukulele), an artist that Krauss has been calling “my favorite musician of all time” during every night of the tour; Buddy Miller (backing vocals, guitar, and pedal steel), Dennis Crouch (bass); and Jay Bellerose (drums).  With the band leaders encouraging everyone to disregard the past, and to simply perform the songs “their way,” the results have exceeded already lofty  expectations.

The band’s tour opened with six dates in the U.S., including a highly lauded performance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, before taking the show to Europe.  As he boarded his plane for  London, Buddy Miller explained, “T Bone has a great vision, and the band is really delivering.  The last few shows, the music has really gone to another level.  That pair of voices (Plant and Krauss) is simply other-worldly.  They come from two totally different places, but they are both exploring new territory.  I marvel at the beauty of Alison’s (vocal) instrument every night – she is really crankin’ it up a few notches on this tour.”

Krauss, long regarded as one of the world’s finest harmony singers, worked closely with Plant to develop a rapport that is allowing the two to blend their powerful voices in unison, singing harmonies in a way that neither has sung before.  Plant has left his famed vocal howls behind, opting instead for a tasteful, more melodic approach.  Together, the duo have become a musical force.

“Our main thought,” Plant has said, “was that because our voices are so different we needed to have lyrics that would be provocative and evocative enough to support that.  We’re both considered to be locked into our genres but I don’t want to be doing anything in my career if I’m not learning.  I can’t stand it when musicians in my peer group keep doing the same old stuff.  And Alison’s attitude is just as bold as mine, which is basically how come we’re together.”

Krauss elaborates, adding, “Since this project was going to be my first real departure from Union Station in 22 years, when Robert and I talked about making a record together I suggested doing something moodier.  I thought it needed to be dark lyrically, partly because our voices are so different, but also because I like tunes with that feeling of loss. 

“What I’ve learned from working with Robert is that a recording is something that you create right in this second, which I love because I’ve always looked at the studio as a tool where you compile things out of different performances.  Robert’s attitude is the opposite, ‘This is the time to get it and we’re not going to make it into something else.  It’s not about what happens later, it’s about who you are for that three minutes.’  I’ve never had the confidence to do that before.  I’ve never had such a good time recording, I’m sure I will have quite a different view of singing by the end of this tour too.”

While the tour, which is presently scheduled to remain on the road through early October, is drawing rave reviews, the live performances would never have taken place were it not for Raising Sand.  This is an album that defies genres.  Instead of falling intoany one category, Plant and Krauss, along with band leader Burnett, chose to explore  a wide variety of Americana music, touching on timeless country standards, early blues, West Texas country, Cajun, rockabilly, and vastly unexplored territories of folk-rock.  Burnett proved to be the mastermind of the band’s instrumental approach, while Krauss coached Plant on the intricacies of harmony. Yet Plant’s flair for improv also plays a large role.

PLANTKRAUSSWEB2.jpg“Fortune Teller” is a perfect example. The Naomi Neville song, which has been recorded by both The Who and The Rolling Stones, was never discussed during pre-production meetings.  One day while the band was jamming in the studio, Plant jumped in and started singing, and out came “Fortune Teller. “Nobody suggested it,” Burnett recalls. “It just happened.”

Miller, who did not appear on the album but was hand picked to join the touring band, adds, “Robert just goes where he feels – he is 100% feel.  With him, every night is totally different.  It is not at all about the arrangements.  Not that there is anything wrong with arrangements, or playing a song a certain way.  But when someone takes the first step and leads, everyone else just follows them there.  Robert is a master at that.”

Burnett elaborates, “I didn’t get involved with the vocal harmonies at all.  They just happened naturally between Robert and Alison.  They let me chose the musicians, but the arrangements were all improvised.  

“Music is about communication,” he continues. “We first discussed the album over a conference call while I was in Vancouver and we decided we’d put together a CD of about a half dozen songs and take it from there.  We chose four and booked a studio in Nashville to see if it would work.  We finished all of them in the first day so we did another eight songs.  We spent a few days later in another studio in Los Angeles, but the whole record was done in less than two weeks.  It just took off and nobody wanted to stop.  I don’t think anybody does, still.

“The picture I tried to create on Raising Sand,” he adds, “was similar to that of an old analog recording of a great symphony orchestra, where all the drums and cymbals are at the back, and the high ones that are at the front, like the violins, are quiet.  The bass notes have to be left plenty of space to reverberate. It will be interesting to see how this works on tour when it’s all live in a room.  We’ll be playing very quietly onstage with a tremendous amount of tone.  I would imagine the way the songs are played will have to change.  Some of the musicians are different, but we can’t really copy the arrangements because they were all improvised to begin with.”

After just six shows, Miller says that the tour is already one of the highlights of his illustrious career.  “No one knew before the first show. When we walked out on stage and heard the crowd that first night, everyone got goosebumps. That was probably the highlight —it does not get any better.  Some people are coming because they love that record, while others are coming because they love the artists.  But, everyone comes with a lot of questions over their head, not sure what to expect.”

Though the band is performing similar set lists most nights, no two shows are the same.  The band is excited about the possibility of continuing to expand their repertoire, Miller says.  “There is talk of working up new a new song every day at sound check.  I think they want to work up as many songs as we can learn.  We worked up so many songs at rehearsal that we had to cut about a third of them to make the show fit in the time we had to perform. I think we’ll be playing a lot of different material by the end of the tour.”

While Raising Sand can be seen as a revelation for listeners, the artists involved were even more profoundly affected. “When we got seventy-five percent of the way down the line,” Plant explains, “I realized we’d created something that I could never have dreamt of.”

Krauss shares his enthusiasm and wonder. “There’s so much romance in contrast,” she summarizes. “It was a real life-changing experience.”

The experience was so life changing that Plant has reportedly turned down an additional $100 million (on top of the $250 million offered the rest of the band) to participate in a world tour with Led Zeppelin.  Plant insists on moving forward, not going back and visiting another moment in time that he feels has passed.  Together with Krauss, a 21 time Grammy winner, Plant sees a totally different future.

During the filming of the CMT Crossroads show last October, just weeks before the Led Zeppelin reunion show in London, Plant told the network, “Everyone is waiting for the second coming, and by golly, we’re ready.”

While the statement may have seemed laughable to some, those that have experienced Plant and Krauss live are voicing much the same opinion.  Plant is performing at levels he has not reached in nearly three decades, while Krauss is flourishing in her first go at singing rock-n-roll.   Backed by an ensemble of impeccable talent, the duo has come together and blown a breath of fresh air over today’s musical landscape. At times sounding like an ancient gypsy caravan, other times like angels sent from above, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have created something that all music lovers can appreciate. 

No one is talking, at least not publicly, about Plant’s future beyond this tour.  Rumors of a Led Zeppelin continue to circulate. But for now, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and company are making vibrant and exciting music together that may indeed be the second coming Plant speaks of.