It was, as Robert Plant noted, a night of firsts.
Plant’s Tuesday concert at downtown’s Orpheum marked the first show for the revived version of his Band of Joy in 43 years, the first night of his current tour, and his first performance in Memphis since being officially honored by the city.
Plant and his five-piece outfit took the stage for a nearly two-hour set that cut a wide swath across his career, from his Led Zeppelin glories to his recent Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, as well as offering a preview of a new Band of Joy album due later this year.
Choosing a roots music Mecca like Memphis as the site to re-launch the Band of Joy was no accident. For Plant — an avowed student and explorer of Southern musical traditions — the project brings together the deep blues, gospel, country and rockabilly closest to his heart.
Set against a giant circus-themed backdrop, the capacity crowd roared as Plant opened with a understated version of “Down to the Sea” from his early ’90s solo album Fate of Nations, before quickly moving into “Angel Dance,” the first single from his forthcoming record.
It was immediately apparent that Plant’s decision to stock his new Band of Joy with gifted Nashville multi-threats — including lead guitarist Buddy Miller, instrumental wiz Darrell Scott and singer Patty Griffin — was an inspired one as the group’s contributions were rich and nuanced throughout the evening.
Plant, who was honored on Monday with a star in front of the Orpheum’s sidewalk and with the City of Memphis declaring it “Robert Plant Day”, was chatty and playful. “I don’t know how many second homes you can have,” he noted between songs, “but this is my first second home.”
After a halting reading of “House of Cards,” Plant noted: “That was a song from the catalog of Richard Thompson. This is from another catalog,”
With that the band was into a slower, groovy version of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.” It was restrained but enjoyable performance with Plant sidling up to Griffin to belt out the song together.
It was the first of several Zep songs that would get an airing during course of the evening. Most were heavily rearranged and colored by the guitar work of Miller, who was more than up to the task of re-imagining such deeply ingrained classic rock standards, though his playing clearly owed more to Jimmy Bryant than Jimmy Page.
Later, each of the band members took turns on a brilliant gospel medley of “Oh What A Beautiful City/Wade In The Water/In My Time of Dying” that stood as the show’s centerpiece.
Griffin took the spotlight for an impassioned, stomping reading of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” before the band segued into “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” which was delivered with an appropriate menace. A spirited romp of “Central Two 0 Nine” found Plant going native, strapping on a washboard and getting down to business.
Throughout the night, Plant’s pacing was perfect, as he moved the band seamlessly from familiar fare to new material, moody songs to spirited numbers.
A one-two punch of his solo hit “Tall Cool One” and the Zep favorite “Houses of the Holy” had the audience at fever pitch, and he continued to hold them rapt with cover of Townes Van Zandt “Harm’s Swift Way” and a powerful closing “Gallows Pole.”
“See you in another 43 years,” joked Plant after the band had taken its bows.
But it was merely a matter of moments before he was back on stage for an encore that included “Thank You” and a rousing, Sun Records-style redux of Zep’s “Rock and Roll” that ended the night on a fitting Memphis note.
By Bob Mehr