What this current tour says about the Led Zeppelin singer’s staying power at 73
“I haven’t got time to waste.”
That’s what Robert Plant told me when I was interviewing him in 2002 – almost exactly 20 years ago. I was talking to him for VH-1 about his upcoming Dreamland album. It was his first solo album in nine years, after two projects and tours with his former bandmate Jimmy Page.
His sharp gaze as he said this conveyed that there was more to the story, but he wasn’t going to elaborate. Even before social media, he wasn’t going to give a quote that he’d have to elaborate on for the next few months or years. It was clear: this was all he would say on the matter.
I’ve been thinking about that moment over the past few days, since the kickoff of Plant’s latest tour with Alison Krauss. The duo are promoting their second album together, 2021’s excellent Raise The Roof. As the setlist circulated online – mostly songs from the duo’s two albums, and three songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog – I saw variations of the comment, “If he can play Zeppelin songs with Alison Krauss, why not with Jimmy Page?”
Of course, that’s kind of a silly question: he’s been playing Led Zeppelin songs without Jimmy Page (or John Paul Jones) since his tour for 1988’s Now and Zen.
I remember in the leadup to that album , there were whispers that Plant was finally embracing Zeppelin’s legacy. There was a rumor (which turned out to be true) that Jimmy Page was even going to guest on the record. During that era, Zep-cloning hair metal bands were scoring massive MTV and radio hits, and I assumed that this meant that RP was going to hire some hard rock young guns and show Whitesnake and Kingdom Come how it was done.
In a way, that’s exactly what he did – but he wasn’t appealing to the fanbase that gravitated towards easy bits of Zep-lite nostalgia. In the true spirit of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was progressing as an artist. Instead of studying how Aerosmith and KISS and Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart redefined themselves for new audiences, Plant listened to bands who traveled on roads where Zeppelin wasn’t welcome, or at least where they weren’t revered as they were on traditional rock radio. He was checking out R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Let’s Active and The Cure (years later, he and Jimmy Page would nick the latter band’s guitarist, Pearl Thompson).
Now And Zen isn’t a classic album, but it set the tone for the next few decades of Plant’s career: There have always been nods to the past, but they haven’t been in the obvious nostalgic ways. And it’s always been clear that he doesn’t follow the money. He’s obviously extremely wealthy (and if Zeppelin sell their catalog or publishing, he’ll be even more so). But he doesn’t need his artistic future to be chained to his past. Much like Neil Young, he seems to enjoy driving in the ditch more than in the middle of the road.
In the years since that interview, Plant has put out a lot of excellent music, and yes, most of it has has seen him staying far away from the middle of the road. Even his first album with Krauss, 2007’s Raising Sand, was a weird and unexpected turn. Few would have predicted the platinum certification; after all, how many of Plant’s peers have gone platinum with new albums in this millennium? You could not have anticipated the six Grammys and the other accolades that the album earned.
One might think that after Raising Sand, Plant and Krauss would have hit the studio again; apparently, they tried, but the sessions didn’t have the magic of the original album. Surely the respective managements and record labels found this frustrating, if not surprising. After all, Plant has resisted taking tens of millions to hit the road with Zeppelin.
After the Raising Sand follow-up attempt fizzled, Plant started a new group, Band Of Joy (named after his pre-Zeppelin combo with John Bonham), and then the Sensational Shape Shifters (which featured some members of another former band, the Strange Sensation). In 2019, he started yet another group, Saving Grace, who have yet to perform in America.
Watching Plant and Krauss at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens last night was incredible. And it struck me that it was worth the wait. They weren’t playing together again because they had to, they were doing it because they wanted to. Do they have a long-term plan? Knowing Plant, probably not. He’s 73, and he sounds incredible; he commands the stage with an authority that few others have. I think that part of that authority comes from knowing that he’s doing his best, because he’s doing what he wants to.
Neil Young and David Bowie have always gotten credit for their uncommercial choices; in Young’s terms, for headling to the ditch when the middle of the road became boring. Robert Plant deserves that same credit: arguably, he’s been turning down even bigger paychecks than either of those guys did. And arguably, his output since the ‘90s is as good, or better, than theirs. The fact that his biggest commercial and artistic successes came with Led Zeppelin shouldn’t diminish what he’s done in the past four decades.
So, should he get back with Page and Jones, while they’re still walking the earth? So far, 2022 has seen tours by the Rolling Stones and the Who, with key founding members approximating what they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and that’s great (this writer has paid a lot of money to see those bands in recent years, and will continue to do so). But give Robert Plant his credit: he deserves to do whatever he wants to do at this point. Following him might be a bit more difficult, and less comfortable, but it’s worth putting the time in.
After all, you probably don’t want to go back to high school decades after you’ve graduated. And even if you did, you probably couldn’t fit into your old jeans.
VIDEO: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss “Searching For My Love”
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