Plant & Krauss:


says Norman Warwick

I watched a BBCtv documentary on Herman´s Hermits recently for a couple of reasons. I had always had a soft spot in my young teenage years for a number of reasons. I thought Peter Noone was quirky and their songs were good and I was disappointed when my dad turned down the opportunity to book them for a Round Table function as he had never heard of them. He instead booked Dave Berry from Sheffield, a man I would have the great pleasure of interviewing many years later, for an event that was still twelve months away. On the evening of the event Herman´s Hermits had confirmed that they were indeed Into Something Good, as they were sitting pretty at the top of the charts with that debut single. Even my dad had heard of them by then. Many, many years later I found myself living just down the road from one of the Hermits, so the affinity with their music was even further strengthened.

During the documentary Noone said repeatedly how a unique selling point in the sound of Herman´s Hermits was the members innate ability to sing ´together and create a natural sound that wasn´t simply about one singing a third higher or lower than the other. Their voices were so close to each other that created the most subtle of harmonies and a sound all of its own in much the same way as familial groups, like The Everly Brothers.

That conversation put me in mind of Raising Sand, that album from 2007 by the unlikely pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss that has been my playlists ever since. Perhaps I made that association because I was aware they had a forthcoming new album due for release that I was so looking forward to. Only a few days later a review by Mark Beaumont (right) in The Independent of Raise The Roof by Plant and Krauss. It reminded me again that I must acquire this new album and a brief appearance by the artists on The One Show on BBC tv that same evening demonstrated the album will prove to have been well worth our long wait.

Described on Twitter as a rock hack extraordinaire (NME, Guardian, Independent, Uncut, Classic Rock, etc). Mark Beaumont is a music journalist and his work has appeared in publications including NME, The Times and Melody Maker. He has written numerous music biographies and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.

According to Amazon and reviews on Goodreads, [6666666666] (left) is more than just a pan-global, inter-dimensional hunt for the perfect demise, and its chilling conclusion. It is a metaphysical horror story narrated by the monster; the heart-breaking drama of a family destroyed; a portrayal of insanity at its most unsettling. Combining the structural flair of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas with the cutting edge psychodrama of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahnuik, it is a visionary dissection of the fundamental gristle of human life – it’s flaws, frustrations, inter-connections and fleeting joys – as viewed through the very jaws of death itself.

That´s certainly a title for me to put on my Christmas reading list but for now I was more interested in reading what Mr. Beaumont had to say about Raise The Roof, the new, second album from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

 For Robert Plant, (below right) collecting his first ever clutch of Grammys in 2009, wrote Beaumont in The Independent.  was a moment of vindication.

´Every time we went up to the podium, I kept seeing Coldplay start to stand up´, he told Vanity Fair recently of the night that the 2007 covers album Raising Sand swept up all five awards it was nominated for, “and I’d say, ‘Sit down! My turn! F*** off!’” Alison Krauss – his collaborator on the record and a Grammy veteran, having previously bagged 21 over a celebrated career in bluegrass and country music – on the other hand, was distracted by urgent problems developing beneath the surface.

´I was mostly concerned with my undergarments, under what I was wearing,´ Krauss (left) laughed down the phone to Matt Beaumont of the Independent from her Nashville home. ´That was a lot of work. Haha! That’ll really keep you occupied, that whole process of trying to keep everything in its rightful spot. I do remember walking backstage trying to adjust all kinds of things and [Robert] was like ‘come on now’… but he had a very nice night and it was fun in that, but the undergarments were unfortunately taking a lot of my attention´.

If this makes Plant and Krauss sound like an old married couple out for an anniversary treat, it reflects the obvious, natural musical connection between these two revered figures from across the cultural divide between roots and rock. Raising Sand, reinventing 13 lesser-known gems from the annals of blues, country and Sixties pop handpicked by producer T Bone Burnett, was a rich and evocative marriage of Plant’s earthy blues impetuosity and Krauss’s sumptuous bluegrass precision, the grizzled rock mystic bringing grit to the polish of the pristine country queen. And almost fifteen years on, with their repertoire once more in the hands of Burnett and many of the same Nashville players, they’ve repeated the trick.

´It really felt like we’d probably record again´,  Krauss says of the lengthy gap between Raising Sand and the pair’s equally noir and engrossing new album Raise The Roof. ´I didn’t know when and you don’t want to force anything or do things out of time. Those timelines of things, you don’t always know why they are the way they are. I wasn’t sitting around, and neither was Robert, going, ‘hmmm, I wonder why we’re not…?’

Following their 2009 Grammys success, Krauss explains, the pair did reconvene in a studio to start early work on a follow-up, but after three years of working on Raising Sand, recorded in 2006, a break was in order. Other projects – Krauss with her band Union Station and Plant with the Band Of Joy and the Sensational Space Shifters – intervened; the break became a decade.

A fortuitous collision on the same bill at Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Festival tour in Indianapolis in September 2019, though, brought them back into each other’s sphere, and the songs for Raise The Roof (right) came easily. A shared love of Calexico’s beautiful and meaningful borderlands groover Quattro (World Drifts In) sent Plant back to Nashville to rekindle the old spark.

´With Alison and I, we’re leagues apart in so many elements,´ he told the Independent reporter from his home on the Welsh borders, ´and then when you realise it, that’s part of the magic of the whole thing. It comes from our continued surprise at how we can twist songs round and round. It’s never really appropriate for the limitations of my voice, some of the country stuff that we have touched on, but when we get it right, and the right key to sing in for the both of us… it’s just so surprising. When we sing we just look at each other and laugh´.

It’s not just a wrought-in-heaven synergy of voices that’s key to the Plant/Krauss charm, although that remains wonderfully evident as they reimagine The Everly Brothers’ upbeat The Price Of Love as a seamy alcoholic’s lament or dig into the darkness at the heart of Ola Belle Reed’s gallows ballad You Led Me To The Wrong, Geeshie Wiley’s creeping voodoo junk-rag Last Kind Words or Aubrie Sellers’s hardship rocker Somebody Was Watching Over Me. It’s also their love and respect for the material – even as they lure much of it out into the depths of some dusky bayou – and each others’ roots.

Krauss recalls their first conversation, at a Leadbelly tribute Plant had invited her to play with him in Ohio in 2004; Plant waxed lyrical about a ´mysterious, beautiful album by bluegrass banjo legend Ralph Stanley (left) called Clinch Mountain Gospel, a key text amongst Krauss’s bluegrass community. ´

´He talks about listening to the record in the Seventies, driving through the Appalachian Mountains´, she says, ´because he was so mystified in general about his musical life, and in the music that came out of a certain region. To hear him bring up our people was really moving… I came home after that trip and my brother said ‘what’s he like?’ and I said ‘he’s like us.’

Was she daunted to meet him at all?

´No, not at all. I was surprised. I didn’t have any idea what he was like, I’d seen him on MTV in the Eighties and loved my own part of growing up with new music from him. My brother and I loved Big Log, we thought that was stunning. I was surprised at what a genuinely kind and generous person [he was], and a joy to be around… He’s a very generous, kind person. You hear that someone lights up the room but that really is a true statement for him´.

On Plant’s part, he appreciated the closeness of the bluegrass world.

´It’s family´, he says. ´They’re a tight family, and I appreciate all of that. There’s something about coming from a sturdy root… there’s a charm that it exudes´.

He became freshly fascinated by the arrival of the earliest punk acts, “born out of a new generation taking things really back to basics” to challenge “the self-indulgence of the late Seventies”. And he took time to “explore the new worlds that I’ve found since I first went over to Nashville in 2005 or ’06”, specifically citing the under-appreciated work of Los Lobos. “It was another great revelation of how charming and magnificent these other great portals are as they swing open – it was endless, looking in there… It’s given me a lot of spirit and heart, and also a whole different way of looking at the deal that I’m in.”

The private and introvert Krauss, meanwhile, gained a fresh appreciation for her life as a musician: ´You get wrapped up in the process of doing what you do and oftentimes you forget just how special it is´. But she also found herself fretting over the future of the bluegrass scene (´everybody mingles, it’s like a big family reunion every time you go out, and the pandemic takes an event like that and shatters it´), and America itself.

´That’s a very sad subject, the division in the country´, she sighs. ´There’s such a romanticism with unity among the people and a lot of pride. We’re blessed to be able to have elections but to see such a lack of unity any more… I’m not trying to be a political person and I never talk about it, but there was so much division in every way´.

Plant tires quickly of questions on politics. Of Boris Johnson’s pandemic record he jokes: ´I’ve watched a lot of Monty Python, put it like that, and I didn’t realise it was a new run!´, and on Brexit: ´The whole place is in uproar right now, there’s a million errors and at the same time every day somebody somewhere brings us some light´.

When asked for his thoughts on so-called cancel culture, he becomes defensive and dismissive. Is it a good thing that Led Zeppelin’s ‘rock’n’roll’ behaviour (right) wouldn’t be considered acceptable today?

´How can I even comment? It’s such an oblique question. We’ve been hearing it since the beginning of time, and who else does it apply to? What is going on? Is it footballers, politicians… some guy who’s just fixing his garage? For f***’s sake´.

Does he ever worry about the modern moralists of Twitter getting their hands on Hammer Of The Gods?

´How many times has that been round and round and round? It’s bullshit. It was written under a pseudonym, the whole thing is a fiasco… It’s a very old fable, and quite hackneyed I think´.

One thing is certain – after far too long a wait, Plant and Krauss (left) have once more proved themselves a duo of formidable alchemy. Maybe not raising the roof, but undoubtedly raising the bar.

Their vocals are so perfectly aligned that the harmony is also silenced as the two voices sit together as one, somehow creating the sound of our times. We will shortly bring our own review of the album, as well as a flavour of the comments from major press outlets, but for albums this important by artists this good, there is no need to wait. Mr. Beaumont´s opinion is sufficient and come on, we might steer you down sidetracks & detours, but its always worth the walk isn´t it?

The primary source for this article was  written by Mark Beaumont for The Independent.

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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.

Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.

As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.

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