Thursday, June 12, 2008

One Damn Good Show

Last night, J & I went to see Alison Krauss and Robert Plant at Madison Square Garden--their second of two shows here. Fortuitous chance reminded us that the show was happening, and even more fortuitous chance pointed us toward StubHub, which still had some tickets for sale at a reasonable price. Yes, they were nosebleed, but it didn't matter. Damn, what a show.

I could wax rhapsodic all evening about it, but instead will paste in the review from the New York Times (the whole thing, with photo, is here). Lots of standout moments from the show--the old Zep stuff was fabulous, but the thought that struck me again and again was how *well* it all fits together--not at all merely a lamination of one style on top of another, but a melding of the copacetic parts of each style and repertoire that makes the material fit together like it's always been that way, just not ever as good as this. For example, I'm a longtime fan of Fairport Convention's take on "Matty Groves," but these guys did just as amazing a version as that (though it was somewhat truncated).

Anyway, here's what the Times said:

Harmonious Tension and Dueling Flaxen Locks

On “Raising Sand” (Rounder), the spooky, beautiful album they released last year, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss tilt toward each other from starkly different vantage points: heat-blistered arena rock (his) and coolly plaintive bluegrass (hers). Their material, scouted out by the producer T Bone Burnett, mines a deep, dark region of Americana somewhat familiar to them both. But their chemistry springs partly from contrast; even the most harmonious moments convey a subtle, fruitful tension.

Mr. Plant and Ms. Krauss approached common ground more literally at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, the first of two concerts there. Taking the stage from opposite wings, each assumed a stalking gait, like cartoon predators. Their pace had a parallel in “Rich Woman,” the R&B throwback that also opens the album. There was casual symmetry in their height and black attire, and in their flaxen manes.

Things loosened, and quickened. The next song up was “Leave My Woman Alone,” a spunky admonition by Ray Charles; Ms. Krauss grabbed her fiddle, and Mr. Plant sang bracingly over a two-step groove. Then came “Black Dog,” a classic by Led Zeppelin, Mr. Plant’s old band. Arranged in a minor key for banjo, acoustic bass and guitar, it felt muted but menacing, especially as both singers arced their voices upward with a harmonized “ah,” just before an instrumental squall.

“Welcome to the Raising Sand Revue,” Mr. Plant said after that song, summing up a basic truth about this tour. While plainly inspired by the album, it takes welcome liberties with repertory and tone. Mr. Burnett, leading a band of aces, including the drummer Jay Bellerose and the guitarist Buddy Miller, keeps the momentum crisp. The set list doesn’t appear to change much from night to night, which doesn’t suggest a lack of imagination so much as a sturdy formula. It’s working mightily, judging by Tuesday’s results.

As a revue the tour also favors the strengths of its headliners, in a way that “Raising Sand” doesn’t. So there were two more Led Zeppelin tunes, each a powerhouse. “Black Country Woman” had the band exploding at each emotional spur in the lyrics, and then subsiding until the next furious wave.

“The Battle of Evermore” was quieter but stronger, owing to its Celtic drone (a sound not far removed from Appalachia) and its female vocal part (which Ms. Krauss sang grippingly). And even on some songs from the “Raising Sand” album, Mr. Plant was rewardingly forceful: “Nothin,’ ” a Townes Van Zandt lament, found him caterwauling like his younger self.

Ms. Krauss had her own showcase, beginning with the traditional hymn “Green Pastures,” on which she received sparse support from Dennis Crouch on bass and Stuart Duncan on guitar. Then she pared down further, singing a serenely penetrating version of “Down to the River to Pray,” initially with no accompaniment at all. (Halfway through, Mr. Plant mock-tiptoed onstage to contribute to an a cappella gospel harmony.)

If this collaboration encourages Mr. Plant to be a bit more ethereal, it has certainly made Ms. Krauss seem earthier. Her characteristically sweet, high singing was balanced against more strident and cathartic belting. On “It’s Goodbye and So Long to You,” which doesn’t appear on “Raising Sand,” and “Trampled Rose,” which does, she proved she can wail as hard as anybody, even you know who.

Elsewhere there was better proof of a cohesive blend, as in the back-to-back closers: “Please Read the Letter,” a ballad by Mr. Plant, and “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” a classic by the Everly Brothers. Then there was the final encore: “Your Long Journey,” by Doc and Rosa Lee Watson. Ms. Krauss and Mr. Plant sang it exquisitely, with a somber intensity that they couldn’t possibly have summoned before they hit the road.


lauren said...

Hmm. Maybe I need to give that album a chance - I had been unimpressed by the tracks they have been playing on 'FUV for a while. My first impression was that they were all just kinda boringly mellow. I wanted to hear Alison Krauss rock out! But maybe that's just those few tracks - the NYTimes description sounds more dynamic.

Rob said...

Plant was offered a £100 million guarantee to tour with the surviving members of Led Zep, and he turned it down so he could concentrate on this new project with Alison Krauss. What a guy. They're at Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight; I may get out and try and see them.

T said...

Lauren: they definitely rocked out a lot more in the live show--the album *is* a lot more restrained, but there's some fantastic songwriting on it (from all kinds of people), the arrangements are terrific, and the energy AK and RP have as collaborators comes through loud and clear--though not *quite* as loud and clear as in the live show. But I could see--if FUV is playing certain tracks--how the album would come across as a bit dull. Check out "Please Read the Letter"....

Rob: good luck tonight--we got our tickets online at StubHub for not too much money. It's really worth the effort.

Melissa said...

This album has been playing in my car since the day I bought it. The only song that hasn't grabbed me so far is Tom Waits' "Trampled Rose," though as a rule I'm never impressed by covers of his material.

pleasurefromthethorns said...

so jealous!