Robert Plant – “Now and Zen” (1988)

robertplantnowandzenRobert Plant was one of the very first concerts Holly and I went to together.  It might in fact have been the first, but in talking it over while we listen to 1988s Now and Zen we’re just not sure.  Other candidates are INXS and Tin Machine (<– the only way I ever managed to see Bowie… but at least I saw him).  I remember that we went to the Plant show with my future father-in-law, since similar taste in music was about the only thing a mullet sporting teen and a middle aged dude could possible have in common other than their interest in the same girl… albeit approaching the girl part of the equation from completely different directions.  Mind you, he was more Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, while I was more Now and Zen.  But we both agreed on Led Zeppelin IV, so when Plant and company pulled out the mandolins and played some Zep tunes including “Going to California” we could finally see eye to eye.

I’d forgotten how good this record is.  Yeah, I remember the hits – “Heaven Knows,” “Tall Cool One,” and “Ship of Fools.”  But damn, the whole thing is pretty solid.  Plant is one of those singers who aged well, changing his style as time went on and finding new and interesting ways use his changing voice.  From the Honeydrippers to his work with Alison Krauss, even when I haven’t liked it a lot it’s been near flawless.  As Advancement Theory teaches us… when I haven’t enjoyed Plant’s work, most likely the problem is me, not him.

The Honeydrippers – “Volume One” (1984)

In 1985 Robert Plant earned his highest placement ever on the Billboard singles chart, performing on a song that made it all the way up to #3.

And it was with an R&B cover song.  A song that twice before had cracked the Billboard Top 40 – the original making it to #1 for Phil Phillips in 1959, and the 1981 version by, of all people, Del Shannon, sneaking up to #33 in 1981, just a few years before Plant’s version. Robert Plant sang on nine studio albums by one of the biggest rock bands the world had ever (and has ever) seen, Led Zeppelin, and had already released two post-Zeppelin solo albums.  Yet it was a cover song he recorded as part of a fun side-project band called The Honeydrippers that got him all the way up to #3 on the singles chart.  Apparently the irony wasn’t lost on Plant, who hoped the success of “Sea of Love” wouldn’t make the world see him as an aged-rocker-turned-crooner.  Turns out he didn’t have much to worry about.

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What he did have, though, in 1984, was an excellent five-song EP recorded under the name The Honeydrippers, an all-star ensemble that included Jimmy Paige, Jeff Beck, and Nile Rodgers on guitar, jazz drumming legend Dave Weckl, and Paul Shaffer on keyboards.    The five cuts were all classics originally written and recorded between 1947 and 1961, well-known songs to an earlier generation but certainly not to the younger demographic Plant generally appealed to.

I know I had a copy of this record back in the day, though I can’t remember exactly how it came to me.  My best guess is that it was being played on the radio and I got it because of its association with Plant and therefore the mighty Zeppelin.  That being said, I didn’t see it as just a novelty – I’ve been a big fan of “Sea of Love” for a long, long time ,and certainly know all the words by heart.  That wasn’t a real stretch for me though, even back in my rock/metal years, since “Thank You” off of Led Zeppelin II had always been one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, and there are certainly some similarities between the two.

Stylistically Volume One covers a bit of ground, from the R&B of “Sea of Love” to the up-tempo of Ray Charles “I Got a Woman” to the quasi doo-wap of “Young Boy Blues” to the rockabilly of “Rockin’ at Midnight.”  What these songs have in common is that all came from a simpler, less produced era of music, and all share their roots with rock.  Every facet of the record is excellent, from the crisp, true music to Plant’s voice, giving him the opportunity to do some things he’d never done before and showing a different side of his range.

It’s too bad we never got another Honeydrippers record.  The re-release did include a live version of “Rockin’ At Midnight” as a bonus track, and the band performed live a few times (most notably on Saturday Night Live), so there is some material out there that could conceivably be packaged at some point… hell, maybe we’ll even see another record someday. We can only hope.  But for now, check the dollar bins and pick yourself up a copy.

Robert Plant – “No More” RSD 10″

I’ve been a fan of Robert Plant almost as long as I’ve been a fan of music.  I, like many males, went through a major Led Zeppelin phase (to which Holly might say, “Went through?  When did it end?”), and I’m a fan of his solo work as well.  Now and Zen and Manic Nirvana are both fantastic efforts, and we got to see him live in support of one of these (can’t remember which) back in the day, which was outstanding and included a little Led Zep medley played by the band using only mandolins.  And his record with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand… fuggetaboutit!  So good.

This three-song 10″ was one of the first things I ran across yesterday when perusing the shelves at Silver Platters on Record Store Day.  It’s newish (2014) live material and includes “Whole Lotta Love (Medley),” so picking it up was a no brainer.

Now to vent for a moment.

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I’m ultra paranoid record guy.  I’m the guy who worries about every little nick and scratch and who obsesses over whether or not his stylus alignment might not be 100% perfect and therefore causing the slightest amount of distortion… which is probably all in my head.  In fact I know 98% of it is all in my head.  But still, I’m super careful with how I handle my stuff.  SO…. I gave myself plenty of room within the run-in groove on this record when I dropped the tonearm… and it promptly skidded and fell right off the record and into my felt mat.  I just about lost my mind and I envisioned horrible damage to my stylus.  In fact the rounded outer edge of this thing is so big (and so rounded) that I almost did the exact same thing the second time but caught it from hitting the mat at the last second.  Of course when I finally got it to play the paranoia set in, which Robert Plant contributed to by the unusual musical stylings on “Turn It Up – Arbaden.”  F me.

Anyway… I did not have a heart attack (though I am still paranoid as hell), and I did finally manage to listen to More Roar a few times.  It’s a live recording, and the sound quality is absolutely great.  As for the music, the B side is definitely the winner here.  “Poor Howard” is a nice folky number with a  touch of an Eastern musical bent, while “Whole Lotta Love (Medley)” kills it – weaving in elements of multiple songs including “Whole Lotta Love” and “Who Do You Love.”  Much of Plant’s solo material has an Eastern influence (à la “Kasmir”) to various degrees, and I think that’s what keeps the sound fresh and interesting.  He’s definitely got that going on More Roar too, so if you’re a fan of Plant you won’t be disappointed.