Sunday, December 18, 2011

DVD Reviews: Robert Plant’s Blue Note

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Robert Plant’s Blue Note
Executive Producer Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual, 2010AM
155 minutes, USD $19.95

Is it possible for you to respect a musician, and yet not care much for his output? I’ve felt this way for some about the likes of Bowie, Brian Ferry, and Robert Plant. The one time I saw Led Zeppelin in concert at Madison Square Garden was the late 1970s (Bonham’s last tour), and it was one of the more boring shows I have ever seen, with tepid music and a thunderously lackluster performance (I’m guessing they were as stoned as those in the audience around me).

Yet, I still remember the very first time I heard possibly the most overplayed song in the classic rock era, “Stairway to Heaven,” on the jukebox at the Kingsborough Community College Annex. I also recall thinking, that’s it? I do still enjoy, however, Little Roger and the Goosebumps’ “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”…

But for some reason, Plant has intrigued me, even though I actually know very little about him, in a similar way that Jimmy “whip-in-my-suitcase” Page did in his pre-Zep days, when he was a studio musician (England’s Glen Campbell?) and while in the Yardbirds.

Yet another part of the continuing British series on classic rock by the amazing Chrome Dreams, this documentary doesn’t just focus on Robert Plant, but also on the major influences on his musical life. While overly long at nearly 3 hours, this study actually gets it right: the people who are interviewed discuss their particular specialties, such as British writers Nigel Williamson (The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin) and Barney Hoskyns (Trampled Under Foot: The power and excess of Led Zeppelin) focus on the general role of the band, Americans Richie Unterberger discusses the ‘60s San Francisco scene (bet Jeff Tamarkin would have been a good add, too) and Brooklyn-based author and journalist Amanda Petrusich and music historian John Lomax III (The Country Music Book) describe the Nashville period.

Even further, and this is what really excited me, is the part that tends to be weakest in this series, and that is musicians who are contemporaries. For this study, there are the likes of Tom McGuiness (Manfred Mann), Dave Kelly (The Blues Band), Chris Dreja (Yardbirds), Hossam Ramzy (Egyptian percussionist and composer), Robbie Blunt (guitarist and songwriter who worked with Plant during his early solo career) and songwriter/producer Phil Johnstone (of the Dangerous Brothers; any relation to the DVD’s executive producer, I wonder?). Usually these collections are shy on collaborators of the artist in focus, but here they’re thick as, well, musicians.

There are also a plethora of clips, most pretty short, highlighting many points of Plant’s musical life, including live and music videos, as well as various interviews. In fact, the opening segment is part of Plant’s acceptance speech at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 1995, discussing American music, especially the Blues. However, there are nearly as many by the artist that influenced his encyclopedic and broad range of styles as there is of him. A good example is right near the beginning, when a young Plant first discovered rock’n’roll, and we see snippets of Elvis (“That’s Alright Mama” and “Hound Dog”). As he then discovers the blues, there are live bits of Big Bill Broonzy (“Worried Man Blues”), Muddy Waters (“Got My Mojo Working”), Son House (one of my faves, “Dead Letter Blues”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Smokestack Lightning”; “Don’t Laugh at Me”), Sonny Boy Williams (Getting Out of Town”; “Keep It To Yourself”) and of course Robert Johnson (“Preachin’ Blues,” “Crossroad Blues”), among many others. There are even some Stones (“Not Fade Away”; “Little Red Rooster”) and Yardbirds (“I’m a Man”).

Plant discusses this early period, and further onto other segments of his career throughout the disk, on the Canadian Q radio program in 2010 (probably interviewed by an unseen Jian Ghomeshi). Most of this pre-musical period of Plant’s life is taken up in discussion and description of rock and earlier Blues, so Plant barely shows up in the first 30 minutes of the disk.

Following the Blues history, we catch up on the folk rock movement and San Francisco scene with Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) and Love (“Love is More Than Words”). As Plant forms Band of Joy with John Bonham (among others; there is a rare sound-bite of their cover of “Hey, Joe”), psychedelic rock also makes an impression with Moby Grape (“8:05”), Jimi Hendrix (“Purple Haze”), Cream (“Sunshine of Your Love”) and the Yardbirds’ experimentations (“For Your Love,” “Happenings 10 Years Ago,” “Dazed and Confused”).

After Band of Joy dissipate, and the Yardbirds fall apart, Plant – not the first choice of lead singer – joins Jimmy Page and the others to form the New Yardbirds, which, of course, would become Zeppelin. Surprisingly, LZ only constitutes about 10 minutes of the whole story here, though there are a number of quick clips (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”; “Whole Lotta Love,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “When the Levee Breaks” and the song that introduced Plant’s interest in Eastern music, “Kashmir.”)

No, I’m not going to relate, in detail, the whole DVD, you’ll have to purchase it on your own, though my guess if you’re reading this you know the story, anyway. But to quickly give an overview, Plant goes solo in the 1980s, focusing at first on Arabian music, focused around Egypt, in part thanks to the influence of singer Oum Kalthoum.

When he formed his next couple of new groups (just known by his name), he released a bunch of LPs with the full electronic nonsense that made the 1980s somewhat unbearable (think drum machine and synths). I remember seeing some of the videos on MTV and just feeling squeamish, thinking “Jeez, this is just horrible” (e.g., “Little By Little”). Of course, he wasn’t alone as many other British musicians went the same route, such as Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel and Robert Palmer. I blame this, in Plant’s case, on his production team of the Dangerous Brothers. This would be followed by a period of melding the awful ‘80s style with a more rock-oriented feel (e.g., “Tall Cool One”), as his Led Zeppelin past began to catch up to him. He started doing occasional Zep material in his live shows. Funny, there is no mention about later LZ tours with Bonham’s son filling in on the kit; or is my mind making that up?

Of course, once LZ songs come into the mix again, so would his partner, Jimmy Page, and together they’d form, what else? Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (no resurgence of John Paul Jones though, as the doc mentions in passing; would have loved both Page and Jones to have been interviewed on this doc). Together they would, for a couple of LPs worth at least, delves deep into the Eastern sounds, even covering their own LZ material rearranged to their new focus.

By 2006, after some uninspired string of original songs, Page and Plant were kaput. Forming yet another band, the Strange Sensations, the material Plant focused on was wide ranging, from Blues to SoCal-based. In an interview, he calls it a “quasi-psychedelic North African mish mosh.” This was followed by Mali-inspired material, as this DVD posits that Africa is the actual home of the Blues, so it’s logical that Plant would find solace there. The viewer gets some background of this music, and why it is thought to be wellspring of the American-based style.

This is all very well and good, but it’s the next phase that piqued my interest, as he headed for Nashville, hooking up with Americana singer supreme Alison Krauss, who in turn introduced him to her muse, T. Bone Burnett. At this point, we’re given yet another history lesson about C&W. Explaining the connection, Lomax quotes Hank Williams Jr. as once stated that “Country music is nothing but white man’s blues.” Okay, so we’re on the same page as the to the Plant link.

For the last phase we see Plant is his formation of another Band of Joy which, as far as I know, is his current situation.

The reason for the length of this DVD is not just that it covers Robert Plant’s career, but it also informs the watcher on the history of each of his influences. While each one of these topics actually deserves its own documentary, it’s nice to get an encapsulated overview.

One aspect of Plant’s life that is completely untouched here is his personal one, outside of the music. But that’s okay, because I’m actually happy to learn more about what makes him an artist. Am I any more of a Robert Plant fan having watched this? No, I guess not. However, I feel like I understand a lot more about what drives him, and my respect for him has definitely increased. There was so much I didn’t know about they guy, and I’m grateful to be caught up a bit. Plus, learning about the Mali-Blues connection, and Plants forays into Eastern sounds did pique my interest, so I may go back and check out some of the artists that influenced him. It’s all good.

The extra is a few minute piece connecting Plant, Lomax, and Leadbelly (including some clips of the latter performing, alone making bonus worth a watch).

This review is dedicated to the lovely Miss Pamela, who should have been interviewed as well.

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