One of the most anticipated moments of the week when I was a youngster was reading the Sunday Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times. Growing up in a very creative, theatrical, arts-oriented family, it was always a thrill to peruse the huge full page Broadway show and movie ads and well-written reviews, and later, the beautifully rendered concert ads for bands that I had become an early fan of. An unusual passion for a kid, but not surprising given who my parents were and what our family was all about.
One Sunday in 1977 when I was 16, I turned the page and was greeted by a sight that took my breath away: the page was all white, except for the familiar winged-angel-figure dead center that unmistakenly symbolized the great Led Zeppelin, and at the bottom, the absolutely stunning news: they would be playing Madison Square Garden in a matter of weeks, and there was a mail order form for tickets sitting right there at the bottom of the page. Oh my God. Having been immersed in Zeppelin’s music for a year or two, punctuated by their 1976 double live opus The Song Remains The Same, this was it, THE concert, the biggest one of our young lives by a long shot. Having attended concerts and sporting events at the legendary NYC venue several times, and knowing it was only a 45 minute train ride away from my Connecticut town, I pleaded to my Dad to let me go and then to “loan” me the money to pay for four tickets. Being the overly generous soul he was, he didn’t hesitate. Off in Monday’s mail went a self-addressed stamped envelope with a check for around 50 dollars in it (yes, the tickets were $9.50 apiece plus handling) and the wait was on.
Truth be told, with all that is going on when one is 16 (raging hormones, new driver’s license, high school, life exploding around you), I kinda forgot about sending for the tickets, until one day a couple weeks later, an envelope arrived in the mail, with my writing on it, addressed to me. For a moment, I was baffled what it was, why was I getting a letter that I wrote to myself? Then the adrenaline began to flood my body, and upon opening up the envelope, I found four small green tickets, my Charlie Bucket Golden Ticket moment: yes, it was really happening, these were tickets to the Led Zeppelin concert on June 8th, 1977 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I yelped out loud and quickly chose three friends to privately ask the next day at school. “Boys, we’re going to ZEP at the Garden!” John Kaczmarczyk, Bob Funnell and John Chapman were the three comrades who would join me, mainly because they were the three guys whose parents would let them go, and the anticipation began.
The one and only Madison Square Garden, NYC
A few weeks later, it was the day of the show, a school day, and the excitement was palpable. The plan was to meet right after school over at the corner of Catalpa Road where my Dad would drive us to the train station and we would begin our journey over the hills and far away to see one of rock and roll’s biggest acts live. Unfortunately, John “Kaz” had made a truly moronic and potentially disastrous decision earlier that day during F period: he was compelled to draw — OK, pardon me, but it’s true — a large penis on the wall in one of the stairwells of the high school, with the tasty added touch of mayonnaise coming out the end. Nice. As I said earlier, 16 year old hormones were raging, but jeez, what a way to express that, good lord. Unfortunately for Kaz, English teacher Bob Moore caught him in the act, and swiftly yanked him to the principal’s office where he sat dejected on the “bench” in the outer office awaiting his penalty. The first bell to end the day sounded, and as me and my two other concertgoing pals bounded past the principal’s office, John looked panicked behind the glass wall, shrugging his shoulders in a kind of “I don’t know what to do” gesture as we ran past. We arrived at my Dad’s car as he asked, “Where’s Kaz?” and we told him what happened. He had to laugh, and said, “Well, we’ll give him a few minutes, but you guys need to make that next train.” Just then, we saw Kaz bound out the side door in a full sprint to the car, yelling “Go, go, GO!” Just then, the loudspeaker sounded: “Will John Kaczmarczyk report immediately to the office please…John Kaczmarczyk to the office, NOW!” John hurled himself into the back seat of our Volvo, slammed the door, and my Dad hit the gas and we took off down the road. Whatever punishment would have to wait, Led Zeppelin was waiting for us down the tracks, and nothing would stop us now. The train ride was as magical as it would seem to be to four sixteen year olds riding into the world’s biggest city to see the world’s biggest band. We made it from Grand Central Station to our seats, pretty darn good ones too, in good time, and sat in wait for this monumential occasion in our young lives.
The great Zeppelin did not dissapoint. The lights dimmed, and from the then-very-cool pyrotechnics, to the astounding solos, dizzying fretwork and double necked guitar mastery of Jimmy Page, to the thundering booming drum rhythms from the maniacal John Bonham, to the stunning bass and keyboard layering from John Paul Jones, this was a band clearly in it’s prime and we were giddy to be there with them.
But it was that lead singer, the golden maned, ultra tight jeaned, masterfully shrieking and wailing lion of a man — Robert Plant — who stole the show for me, and many others to be sure. From the opening cymbal crashes of The Song Remains The Same, through the FM radio nirvana of Stairway to Heaven (I had to elbow John K awake as this started, he was a bit out of it due to some recreational fun we’d had early on in the show), to the acoustic beauty of The Battle of Evermore, and every single song in between, Plant was the centerpiece of this performance, strutting and undulating and boo-boo-boo-boogeying his way around the stage like the sexually startling front man he was, stalking and posing like the human version of a male lion that he emulates, a strong, powerful, dominating presence, and an astonishing sight to us 16 year old boys who idolized him. I can see him right now standing in waist deep dry ice smoke singing the opening refrain to the epic tune No Quarter — “close the door, turn out the light, you know they won’t be home tonight”– his open palm turned out to the side, other hand on his hip, with Jones’ mesmerizing keyboard pulsating behind him, wow, I am right back there at the Garden again right now just recalling it. It still ranks as one of my top 3 favorite concerts of all time out of hundreds, and it was Robert Plant who is seared in my mind as the star of the evening, not surprisingly. The band encored with a thunderous Whole Lotta Love, and halfway through, we realized we had about 20 minutes to make the last train back home, so we reluctantly left the venue, four teen angels flying down the neon lit streets of the big city back to Grand Central Station to our waiting train, literally hurling ourselves into the car just as the doors closed. Exhausted, elated, dumbstruck by what we just saw, we knew we’d experienced rock and roll heaven, with a memory etched forever in our souls.
That was 34 years ago this June. So much life has passed since then, for both the great Robert Plant and me. Since then, I’ve graduated high school and college, been married twice, had two kids of my own and helped raise two stepkids, lost both my parents, and maintained a 27-year career. Hell, I even survived a cancer scare. Life has been a whirlwind since that June evening in 1977, but a fabulous life it has been overall, and still is.
For the legendary Mr. Plant, life would also be a whirlwind, albeit for him as the legendary rock star he became. He would lose a son to illness a month after our Garden show, eventually break up the band in 1980 following the death of drummer Bonham (two events that would stun and sadden me during my college years) after taking Zeppelin to the height of rock and roll superstardom, embark on a solo career that would take several different machinations over the next 30 plus years, even attempt a couple of Zeppelin pseudo-reunions, some which would largely fall painfully short but one or two that would remind people of Zeppelin’s awesome power and creative force. Yes, life would be a potpourri of ups and downs for Robert Plant since that Garden party we had in 1977.
But arguably the most creative and self-satisfying period in his post Zeppelin life would pair Plant up with an unlikely cast of characters, unlikely at least for him. The first successful suarez was with bluegrass queen Allison Krauss and producer T-Bone Burnett in 2007-2008, with the result being the multi-Grammy winning, critically acclaimed project Raising Sand, a gorgeous collection of bluegrass, R & B, folk and country songs unlike anything Plant had ever done. But it worked. And Plant seemed rejuvenated and satisfied.
In 2009, he tried to replicate the magic again with Krauss and Co., but the magic just wasn’t there, so he veered off from going down the exact same path by partnering with multi-talented alt-country cult favorite Buddy Miller and creating The Band of Joy in 2010, touring with the band before recording the stunningly familiar but original Band of Joy album, which contains everything from Los Lobos, Townes Van Zandt and Richard Thompson covers to Plant/Miller originals and arrangements of traditional folk-esque ballads, and features a new female presence, respected singer/songwriter Patty Griffin. The album was named one of Rolling Stone’s top albums of 2010, and once again, Robert Plant had taken a different path but found not only commercial success, but he had made music that satisfied him and made him feel positive about where he is today, something many longtime musicians struggle with and often fail at as they head towards the twilight of their career.
Well, Robert Plant and I met up again last night, this time about 4 or 5 hours away from Madison Square Garden, at DAR Constitution Hall in DC. Alot has changed since we were last in the same room together; jeez, we’re both lead singers now, albeit on way different levels. But being in the same room with him again was another totally exhilarating experience, albeit not as a young rock and roll God (although damn, he still exudes that aura because it’s friggin’ Robert Plant for God’s sake) but as an older man who has found exactly where he wants to be in his musical life, shunning the need to be another classic rock act rehashing the hits of yore, and finding new musical avenues while also giving his longtime Zeppelin fans a taste of how he wants to present that classic music of yesterday for us today.
After a truly splendid yet oh-too-short opening set by brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson of the fabulous North Mississippi All Stars (see my previous blog for my interview with Luther) which was chock full of Mississippi blues, a Dylan cover and just some damn good fuzzbox swamp music that these boys are so damn good at, Robert Plant and his Band Of Joy took the stage, and you could feel it. You could feel that we were back in the room with this rock God, sure, in a different place and in a different feel, but it was him.
And they opened with…ha…Black Dog. Even though this new version of the classic Zeppelin slammer was not the version we all know and veered towards a more folky, countrified style, dang, it was Robert Plant doing friggin’ Black Dog, dammit, with new muse and ultra sweet-voiced Patti Griffin backing him up, and this new band was churning through it, and yeah, it was glorious. Sure, it would befuddle some Zep fans who want the original, but get a life, folks. This is how Robert Plant wants to do Black Dog these days, and he should be able to do it any way he wants.
Next up was a reworking of a Plant solo tune, Down By The Sea, followed by one of my favorites from the Band of Joy record, the Los Lobos cover Angel Dance. Plant sounded in great form on this sweet yet burning tune, as mandolin and bass powered it along. Another major Zep fave, Houses of The Holy, would follow, possessing the skeleton of the FM metal chugger of yore but with the new band sound, including Griffin’s beautiful voice dueting with Plant, and some pedal steel on the main riff to boot, with the crowd responding very positively to it as they would to the Zep tunes all night.
A great version of Uncle Tupelo’s Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down followed, a haunting song also on Band of Joy, and then the middle of the set had Plant graciously relinquishing the lead mike to some of his talented cohorts, with Griffin (Move Up), guitarist Darrell Scott (A Satisfied Mind) and Miller (Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go) all taking turns on songs of their own, mixed in with a couple more Zep gems (Tangerine was really sweet, as well as part of In My Time of Dying which cropped up in a medley), a cover of the great Richard Thompson’s House of Cards, also from Joy, even a turn on Low’s Monkey.
After the great Barbara Lynn tune Can’t Buy My Love, another gem off Joy, Plant did a pretty-true-to-the-original Tall Cool One from his solo career, making the “Lighten up baby, I’m in love with you!” refrain sound just like the 80’s FM hit that it came from. Then it was time for easily the best Zeppelin cover of the evening, Ramble On, which was as dead on a version as you could have asked for, with great exotic guitar work from Scott and more sweet vocal help from Griffin. Sure, the reworked versions of the Zep tunes were cool, but OK, I’ll admit it was nice to get one Zep cover that was taken right from the original. The crowd sang along gloriously with each “Ramble on!” Plant uttered. It was the rock god back in our midst in his original form. That was followed by another Zep classic that really suited the new sound: Gallows Pole. The more folksy, rootsy original sound of this nugget really jelled with the new band and it was a rousing end to the main set. The band returned with a very sweet, mellow take on my favorite Robert Plant solo tune In The Mood, I had wondered silently earlier in the evening if he might roll this, and my wish was granted. Then, the band launched into a great countrified version of Zep’s Rock and Roll, and yeah Robert, it’s been a long time since we rock and rolled together, for sure. The very special and very unique experience ended with an a cappella classic, the Grateful Dead’s concert closer And We Bid You Goodnight. It sent me out into the sleety night basking sweetly in not only my reunion with Robert, but also with melancholy thoughts of Jerry Garcia, who I had heard do that song with the Dead many years ago.
Three decades had passed since I had my first night with Robert Plant, and all these years later, well, he didn’t dissapoint again. In fact, he triumphed. Been a long time since we rock and rolled, Robert, and as we wind on down the road once again, I bid you good night, and good luck, and thanks for another glorious evening with your one of a kind music. Ramble on.
Here is last night’s full setlist along with different versions of the songs they played: http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/robert-plant/2011/dar-constitution-hall-washington-dc-63d2c67b.html