Stairway to Down-Home Heaven

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant performed traditional tunes and a bit of Led Zeppelin at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday.
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant performed traditional tunes and a bit of Led Zeppelin at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

Robert Plant was having a flashback Friday night at Merriweather Post Pavilion. "May 25, 1969, I was here on this stage, supporting the Who," Plant said, sounding somewhat incredulous as he recalled that long-ago Led Zeppelin show.

"Rock-and-roll!" somebody screeched.

"It's all over," Plant said with an impish grin. "Now we go to church."

With that, Plant and his new duet partner, Alison Krauss, began to sing "You Don't Knock," a toe-tapping gospel song by Pops Staples on which the vocals and accompanying music were sweet and gentle, the harmonies downright heavenly. So much for the old "hammer of the gods."

Not that there's anything wrong with Plant's current proffer with the bluegrass star Krauss. In fact, their wide-ranging, two-hour concert here was nothing short of spellbinding.

Theirs is a very different kind of blond ambition tour -- one in which two sandy-haired singers from opposite ends of the world come together for an eclectic exploration of American roots music. Whereas Plant, the Brit, became famous in his 20s for plying his keening voice to oft-thunderous blues-rock songs, he is now, at 59, performing haunting, atmospheric country, bluegrass, folk, soul and gospel songs -- plus a little bit of Led Zeppelin -- with Krauss, a fiddle-playing American Midwesterner who specializes in plaintive mountain music and wasn't even alive when Plant's old band was booked at Merriweather in 1969. (She's 36.)

The partnership began last year, when Plant and Krauss released a Grammy-winning album, "Raising Sand," with T-Bone Burnett serving as the project's producer. While Plant has always had a great affinity for American music, it was initially limited to the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen. Now, he's hip to the likes of Townes Van Zandt, the Texas troubadour whose "Nothin' " Plant performed here, singing emphatically over Buddy Miller's pealing lead guitar and Jay Bellerose's thundering drums.

The collaboration has been filled with surprises, from the song selections (the set included Johnny Horton's old country hit "I'm a One Woman Man," Allen Toussaint's R&B tune "Fortune Teller" and the ancient murder ballad "Matty Groves") to the very concept itself. But perhaps the biggest shock has been just how well Plant's tenor and Krauss's crystalline soprano mesh, as in Gene Clark's loping "Through the Morning, Through the Night," on which Krauss sang lead and Plant added harmony vocals to stirring effect here. On Ray Charles's country two-step, "Leave My Woman Alone," the roles were reversed and Krauss added scorching fiddle lines and harmony vocals while Plant sang lead. The audience was enraptured.

Krauss is not the most kinetic of live performers, but she can nonetheless summon big notes from the stasis of her stage-right mark. That was clear during her reading of "Trampled Rose," on which her vocals soared over spare instrumentation from the band of roots-rock all-stars. It was a striking performance -- so much emotion, so much control, so much power and purity -- and as it concluded, Plant, sitting off to the side of the stage, beamed and gestured emphatically at Krauss.

Probably not the show Led Zeppelin fans thought they might be seeing after December's reunion concert in London. Instead -- at least for now -- it's over the Tennessee hills and far away.

Friday's set did include three Zeppelin songs, though the first, "Black Dog," hardly remained the same, what with the roaring guitar, walloping rhythm and shrieky vocals of the pile-driving original replaced by brooding, textured stringed instruments (including banjo), clickety-clack drumming and the low, gorgeous singing of Plant and Krauss. There were a few musical explosions, relatively speaking, yet the dynamic shifts never shifted to the vocals, which simmered but never boiled.

Closer to original form was "The Battle of Evermore," whose instrumentation (mandolin, acoustic guitar) and dueling male-female vocals made it a perfect fit, particularly given that Krauss sings with the same sort of ethereal purity as did Sandy Denny. And "Black Country Woman," an acoustic rock song to begin with, was performed as country-blues, spiked with Stuart Duncan's fingerpicked banjo, Krauss's racy fiddle runs and Burnett's bashed electric guitar lines. For a brief moment, Plant, who was vocally restrained for much of the show, even howled a little bit, just like old times.

But this new project is not about that band, or even that style of music, and so the show closed with Doc and Rosa Lee Watson's "Your Long Journey," a beautiful ballad full of high, lonesome harmonies. As Miller strummed the harpsichord, Plant and Krauss went out on a quiet, contemplative note.

If you'd come to rock, you'd come to the right place -- just 39 years too late.

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