When a group disbands it's usually the lead singer that has the most prosperous career. While that proved true with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant it was hardly a slam-dunk. With the death of drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin pulled the plug after a decade as the premier Hard Rock group. Plant's first two solo releases "Pictures At Eleven" ('82) and "Principle Of Moments" ('83) were tepid, if well received efforts-largely because critics tempered their disappointment. After all, this was one of Rock's most recognizable voices. "Principle Of Moments" had a couple early hits, the semi-mystical "In The Mood" and the inscrutable "Big Log."
What nearly sidetracked Plant's career before it had a chance to get going was the Honeydrippers project. Once again teamed with Jimmy Page, they released a remake of the turgid early '60s Phil Phillips hit ballad "Sea Of Love," complete with a Nelson Riddle-type string arrangement. It shot up the charts. The video, which featured a young couple cavorting on the beach - no doubt near the sea of love - got major MTV play. At first the Rock audience recoiled is horror, then disgust. Plant was in grave danger of losing his core audience. Even the spirited Big Band Rock cover of the '50s gem "Good Rockin' Tonight" with horns blasting and Page on guitar did little to improve the situation. "Shaken N Stirred" ('85) provided the hit "Little By Little" but not much else.
Meanwhile, former Zep bassist John Paul Jones was composing movie soundtracks in relative anonymity. Page too dabbled in soundtracks before launching the deservedly short-lived The Firm with Paul Rodgers (Free and Bad Company), as Led Zep lite. Later Page worked with former Deep Purple/Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale for the ill-conceived Coverdale/Page effort. The best that can be said about the project is it inadvertently led to Page and Plant reuniting in the '90s. In that context, Plant's struggles didn't look so bad.
Finally, "Now And Zen" established Plant as a major solo success with three stellar songs, "Ship Of Fools," "Heaven Knows" and Rocker "Tall Cool One" which concluded with a handful of Zep guitar riffs just to remind everyone where Plant had been. Albums "Manic Nirvana" ('90) and "Fate Of Nations" ('93) came out before Plant and Page hooked up yet again.
The three surviving Zep members had appeared at one-off events (most notably Live Aid and Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Party) with a fill-in drummer. But after a planned reunion tanked Plant and Page decided to proceed as a duo. The "No Quarter" ('94) album and tour revisited the Zeppelin catalog. Another Plant/Page effort "Walking To Clarksdale" arrived four years later. Plant resumed his solo career in '02 with "Dreamland" and a compilation of his work outside Zeppelin, "Sixty Six To Timbuktu" ('66 was the year of Plant's first recordings) came out a year later. The free-flowing "Mighty Rearranger" saw the light of day in '05.
Plant has taken some interesting (and occasionally dull) turns in his decidedly eclectic post-Zeppelin career. '07's "Raising Sand," a collaboration between Plant and Country/Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, was just such an excursion. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the 13-track set was largely covers, but included "Please Read The Letter," a song Plant co-wrote with Jimmy Page. On singing harmony with Krauss, Plant said, "I'd always liked harmony singing but I'd never been a part of anything . . . that ever went anywhere near harmony work." Plant first sang with Krauss on an '04 Leadbelly (Hudy William Ledbetter) tribute album.
"Raising Sand" sold 112,000 units in its first week of release to debut at #2 on the Billboard 200. Country singer Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride" was in the top spot. Still, the #2 slot marked career highs for both Plant and Krauss as solo artists.
Following a one-off Led Zeppelin concert in London rumors began percolating that the band was planning an extensive tour. This time though, it looked like it might actually happen. Page, Jones and Jason Bonham (the son of late Zep drummer John Bonham) were onboard. What about Plant? When finally cornered, Plant made it abundantly clear (once again) that he had no intention of abandoning tour plans with Krauss, for a romp with his former bandmates. OK, fine. So Page, Jones and Bonham began holding auditions for a singer. The famous, not-so-famous and has-beens-looking-to-rebound gave it a shot. But nobody made the cut (big surprise). In the end, the search for a frontman was cancelled as well as any tour discussions.
And right on the heels of that, Plant and Krauss nabbed the Record of the Year ("Please Read The Letter") and Album of the Year ("Raising Sand") awards at the 51st Grammys in L.A.
Months later, Plant received another major honor for his contributions to music. Presented by none other than Prince Charles, Plant was given the Commander of the Order of the British Empire medal during a London ceremony. Plant said he felt humbled to receive the honor alongside people recognized for military and community service.
Hey Robert, real nice medal. That's great. "So what about getting back together with Zeppelin?" That was the question on reporter's minds. "Sometimes I go a bit deaf in either ear, especially when people are talking nonsense," Plant responded.
Plant continued his roots journey with the "Band Of Joy" album. The title was taken from the name of a pre-Zeppelin band that Plant was in with the late Zep drummer John Bonham. This time around Plant, the only original member, worked with Patty Griffin (vocals), Darrell Scott (multi-instrumentalist), Buddy Miller (guitars and co-producer, Byron House (bass) and Marco Giovino (drums).
"Buddy's integral to this album, you can hear his taste all over the instrumentation," said Plant in a statement. "Buddy's zone is beautiful, with a lot of reflections going back into mid-Fifties Rockabilly, and all the great Country stuff, along with the Soul and R&B from Memphis."
With the recording completed Plant embarked on a Band Of Joy tour with Griffin, Miller, Scott, House and Giovino.
The trademark siren wail of Plant's Zeppelin days is largely absent from his solo career. No longer the "golden god" of his early career Plant tried, with mixed results, to get away from sledgehammer Rock and expand Zeppelin's airier notions. "Pictures At Eleven" and "Principle Of Moments" are solid efforts but "Now And Zen" has better songs and more energy. It stands at the pinnacle of Plant's '80s work. "Manic Nirvana" and "Fate Of Nations" continues Plant's Hard Rock leanings but are ultimately less satisfying. Of the Plant/Page efforts, "No Quarter" which gives a different reading to some of Zeppelin's headier songs, is the better of the two.
"Sixty Six To Timbuktu" compiles Plant's pre and post-Zeppelin work with nearly all the hits (including the "Sea Of Love" debacle but not "In The Mood") and a number of previously unreleased tracks. Aside from the hits, the pre-Zeppelin stuff is the most engaging. A demo of the old warhorse "Hey Joe" is a mess but it shows Plant's vocal style in development. "Operator" with British Blues great Alexis Korner sounds like the blueprint for "Bring It On Home." For something not heard since the Honeydripper days "You Better Run" has horns and female backing vocals. Overall, it's a superior retrospective covering Plant's spotty solo career.
There's a difference between old Rock stars and Rock legends. Former Rock stars on the comeback trail play a variant of what made them famous. Though the faces are sagging, butts dragging and the playing isn't nearly as sharp as it was two decades earlier, they make a valiant effort to show that they still have "it." They may not have as much of "it" as they used to but they're out to prove they're still in the game. Legends take a different tack. They know what they'll be remembered for and are generally OK with that. There is no need to re-establish themselves - they already are. Legends usually have a fan base that is large enough and loyal enough to support their eclectic efforts. Record labels know they won't make a fortune on these projects but they won't lose their shirts either. It works all the way around.
Plant is certainly a legend. On the "Mighty Rearranger" (one of the worst album titles in recent memory - but hey, this from a guy who once had a hit with a song called "Big Log"), Plant is in good voice as he strolls through a set of acoustic songs, propelled by North African rhythms and backed by synth and strings. Plant has traveled far from his "Now And Zen" days (his solo commercial high point). This is a comfortable, low key effort. The herky-jerky "Freedom Fries" is appealing as are "Somebody Knockin'" and the easy flowing "Dancing In Heaven," which features some "Kashmir" like touches.
Anyone who remembers Plant's performance on "Bring It On Home," from "Led Zeppelin II," might cringe at the concept behind "Raising Sand." Plant, on that Zep gem, tries to impersonate an ol' Blues singer. It was either an inept tribute or a woeful parody. But nearly four decades later, and absent the challenge of trying to be heard above the din created by Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, Plant is able to dial it down considerably to his and "Raising Sand's" advantage. Krauss, for her part, is right at home with the elegantly simple arrangements adorning largely obscure songs. "Raising Sand" sounds like it was recorded at Sun Studios two hours before Elvis arrived. There's a vibrancy, and even an authenticity, to the performances.