Robert Plant originally got famous exploiting a traditional form of American music — the blues. At a Led Zeppelin show in Laurel in 1969, Washington Post pop-music critic Carl Bernstein (yeah, him) found Plant's performance so derivative he labeled it "latter-day blackface." Plant survived the slur, and he and Zeppelin went on to do all right for themselves. In fact, had Plant wanted to play that same stuff the same way with the same band all these years later, he'd be playing stadiums now.
Turns out Plant still wants to hit the road paying tribute to American music, just a different sort. He came to DAR Constitution Hall on Tuesday with the group that caused him to reject a Led Zeppelin reunion, his new Band of Joy, and in a daring and fabulous 100-minute set, paid tribute to domestic country and folk.
Plant's set featured oodles of Page/Plant material, but the songs didn't remain the same. The Band of Joy versions, in fact, weren't easily recognizable as their old selves. "Black Dog" was plodding and moody, carried by the leaden notes Buddy Miller plucked on his baritone guitar. "Rock and Roll" was done in swampy, New Orleans-rock style, with drummer Marco Giovino tapping on his kit, not pummeling it the way John Bonham (a member of Plant's original Band of Joy in the mid-1960s) would have. "Ramble On" was done as loud as country rock can be. For the coda of "Gallows Pole," a traditional folk number that appeared on "Led Zeppelin III," Plant let loose with the night's one and only shriek.
But Plant used most of his time onstage showcasing songs that most of his regular audience had never heard before, and while doing so freed up members of his all-American band to flaunt their skills. On "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," a traditional gospel tune recorded by, among others, Uncle Tupelo, everybody onstage harmonized, with bassist and native Kentuckian Byron House swinging lowest. Plant moved to the back of the stage to sing backup while multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott (another Bluegrass Stater) handled lead vocals on "A Satisfied Mind," most famously covered by Gram Parsons.
There was a whole lot of Texas in the set. With Austin-based songstress Patty Griffin by his side, Plant covered "Harm's Swift Way" by Townes Van Zandt and Barbara Lynn's "You Can't Buy My Love," both songs as obscure as they are wondrous. And when Plant reprised his own "Tall Cool One," a song from the late 1980s revived years later in Coca-Cola commercials, he and the band rocked it like the Fabulous Thunderbirds might.
Before ending the show with an a cappella version of another traditional folk number, "And We Bid You Goodnight," brought into the hippie scene in the late 1960s by the godfathers of psychedelic folk, the Grateful Dead, Plant announced his agenda for the tour: "It's all an experiment!" Everybody in the ad hoc laboratory voiced their approval.