by Mark Saleski
Back in Led Zeppelin‘s day, it was near to impossible to twist the radio dial (yeah, radios had dials back then … think of a radio dial as an ancient, manual hyperlink, without the Internet or computers or any of that stuff; wait, you don’t know what a radio is?) and not stumble into airing number eight bazillion of either “Stairway To Heaven,” “Black Dog” or “Whole Lotta Love.”
Most of us (well, the guys anyway) loved ‘em. They were the rock and rolls godz of that era. We even got all slack-jawed at junk like the weird little mini-movies (excuse me, vignettes) that confused us in the middle of “The Song Remains The Same” and the tales of drugs, drink, sex and fish parts in “Hammer of the Gods.”
But then a coupla things happened. Zeppelin put out In Through The Out Door, which we all said was cool but, in reality, in our bedrooms late at night with our obligatory Farrah Fawcett posters on the wall … well, we thought it was sorta dull. No spine-tingling shrieks from Robert Plant, no snarling alpha-guitar from Jimmy Page. OK, the multiple covers and the paper bag thing was cool. But “Hot Dog”? Yow. Then John Bonham died and Zeppelin, perhaps already making the slow fade, was gone.
A few years later, Plant put out Pictures at Eleven, the first in a string of solo records. The music, while toned down in intensity from Zeppelin, shared the former band’s eclecticism. Plant finally hit it big with Now And Zen, which contained a bunch of radio hits including “Ship Of Fools,” “Tall Cool One” and “Heaven Knows” (with guest Page on the latter two).
Then … I just plain forgot about Plant. He’d been busy touring, producing more solo material and even getting back together with Page (Walking Into Clarksdale, which I think I bought used … but can’t remember a thing about, except that I bought it used). God knows what I’ve been up to, but listening to Robert Plant (or at least keeping up with the new stuff) isn’t on the list.
Then I ventured into Tower Records for the first time in quite a number of years. I’d given up on ‘em because their prices were just nuts. The last disc I had bought from them was Pat Metheny’s Imaginary Day, which was a Christmas present for a friend. On the last day before the holiday vacation I really, really, really needed a copy. The local Newbury Comics (whose idea of a well-stocked jazz section is 10 copies of the latest Kenny G, one of Kind of Blue and something — anything! — by) didn’t have it. So I braved the crazy-long line and shelled out the (gulp) $18.99. Never again. So as I was skulking up and down the rows, I saw the new Robert Plant CD, Mighty ReArranger. Hmmm, looked interesting. The day before I’d heard a teaser for an NPR interview with Plant. Something about African music. Sounded like Plant’s still drilling down into the music of the rest of the planet.
Should I? Why not?! In truth, what pushed me over the edge was the title of track #3: “Freedom Fries.” Maybe there’d be some fun too, along with some interesting music.
Well, well, well … not only was Mighty ReArranger full of interesting music, it’s just might be the best thing Plant has ever done in his solo career. Maybe it’s Plant’s band, the Strange Sensation. All I know is that Plant brought together just about every kind of sound, genre and texture he’s ever used and made it all sound like like an effortless and cohesive whole.
Just check out the instrumentation supporting Plant’s vocals (beside the usual bass, drums, guitar, keys): harmonica, Moog bass, bendir, tehardant and lap steel guitar. The acoustic touches, such as the percussion ostinato played on the Bendir on the opener “Another Tribe”, give extra weight to the ‘heavier,’ more traditional rock instruments. The mixing of genres follows suit. Blues, folk, rock, African and Eastern musics provide contrast to each other: a ‘trick’ common to many a Led Zeppelin song. The perfect example is “Tin Pan Valley,, which begins with a mystical, repeating synth figure … which gives way to a verse augmented only by a simple snare/ride cymbal pattern and Plant’s voice … but which explodes into a shattering chorus, with Plant shrieking and moaning the words “Like this …” Ah, almost back to the ‘good ole days.’
So many years after the fact, it’s been fun to watch the evolution of the Zeppelin offshoot efforts. For my money, it’s been Plant and John Paul Jones (check out The Thunderthief as well as Sporting Life, with Diamanda Galas) who have made the greatest stretches. With Mighty ReArranger, Plant made a big musical statement. Some people wanted to die before they got old. Robert Plant showed us that the wheelchair was a long way off.