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Robert Plant and Alison Krauss at The Theater at Madison Square Garden

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Last week Robert Plant was quoted in the Village Voice as saying that America “needs to hear its music.” Leave it to a Brit to tell us what we need. Plant’s condescension aside, he is right. The former Led Zeppelin singer’s recent album and tour with Alison Krauss, which stopped at the Theater at Madison Square Garden last night, prove that he is doing more than just talking the talk. About halfway through the show, Plant, humble and gracious throughout, paid homage to those American musicians who came before, telling the crowd “If it weren’t for Chicago and Mississippi, I wouldn’t even be here right now.”

Plant gets it. All the amazing musicians who shared the stage with him get it. He is right though – more Americans need to get it.

It’s hard to claim that popular music today has largely forgotten its roots. How can any music become untied from its history when, consciously or not, it is a product, a direct descendent of that history? Take rap music for example. Where would rap music be without James Brown, Bo Diddley (think “Who do You Love?”), Muddy Waters, and even Elvis and his televised gyrations? But, is rap conscious of its ties to history? Despite heavy use of samples, the answer is largely, no. Popular music across the board has lost its ties to the deep past. This would be okay (after all innovation is a good thing) if it weren’t for the fact that American music’s original soul, the soul that makes it exceptional in the truest sense of the word, has been largely flushed out as well.

There are some bright spots, however. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ album Raising Sand is one of them. The album is a throwback of sorts, combining songs from across the rich American landscape and reworking them. Amazingly, with two such established talents leading the way, Plant doesn’t sound like Plant and Krauss doesn’t sound like herself either. Their harmonies are wonderful, taking each singer out of his/her comfort zone and creating an album with a misty, melancholy and altogether different sound.

For the album’s lovers, last night’s show didn’t disappoint. The sound was actually better than on the album, and at times more polished. Plant and Krauss sang songs together, did songs alone, and even threw in a few reworked Zeppelin classics (“Black Dog” and “The Battle of Evermore”). But the true highlight was the band (including Ms. Krauss’ fiddle solos which were too few and far between). Guitarist Buddy Miller provided pedal steel, mandolin, and even some autoharp while mostly playing roaring rockabilly-style guitar solos. Multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan was also in the band. Duncan is familiar to bluegrass fans as one of the members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, a bluegrass supergroup of sorts. During the show Krauss introduced him as “my favorite musician,” which gives some indication of his caliber. His fiddle, banjo, electric mandolin, and great harmonies were a real treat even though he never took center stage.

But, the show was stolen by the strange, tall, lurking man in black on the rhythm guitar, Mr. T-Bone Burnett. Mind you, Alison Krauss has more Grammy’s to her name (21) than any other woman and Robert Plant is, well, Robert Plant, so stealing a show from them is no easy task and T-Bone did it with ease. That’s how good he is.
The man who Plant called a “musical guru” is the person most responsible for this album and tour. He picked the songs, picked the musicians, and brought Krauss and Plant together. Without gushing too much, the man has produced for the likes of Roy Orbison, Ralph Stanley, Tony Bennett, Counting Crows, John Mellencamp, and K.D. Lang. He’s also the man behind the soundtracks for Walk the Line, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Burnett played guitar in Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue and has also had an impressive solo career spanning three decades. He’s covered many genres but has recently developed his own brand of slinking, swampy, murk-rock music (see The True False Identity, 2006). Needless to say, T-Bone’s fingerprints were all over the concert arrangements. He performed three songs of his own as well, (“Bon Temps Rouler” and “The Rat Age” among them) which were so grungy they seemed crawl with bugs.

The band took it home and Plant and Krauss ended the show with a chilling rendition of Doc Watson’s gospel-like song “Your Long Journey” and most of the crowd went home happy to have witness the soulful American revue. There were, however, those who screamed for Plant to play “Stairway to Heaven” as the band left the stage. But Plant seemed happy to just be up there playing and rediscovering the roots of the music that he loves. And maybe as the tour rolls from town to town the gospel will spread and people will throw their hands up and say, “I’ve seen the light!” instead of “Stairway!” And then maybe they’ll go home, pull out the old record player, give it a spin, and feel connected all the great music that was born in the same country as they were.

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