After roughly a half-hour of soulful, confessional solo material on Saturday night, roots singer Patty Griffin paused to introduce her "driver" to the couple hundred fans packed into Austin’s tiny Continental Club.
"Three years ago a guy with big hair and a British accent called me and said he needed help singing on their record," Griffin said with a knowing smile. "I followed him on the road for 18 months and after it all he said he’d be my driver."
That introduction done, rock legend Robert Plant stepped up on stage wearing a black chauffeur’s cap that he promptly removed with a laugh and took to the microphone to join Griffin on one of her new songs, the slow, yearning "Ohio." Saturday’s intimate club performance was the first of two for the couple, both nights benefits for injured and uninsured Austin musician Michael Fracasso – a longtime friend of Griffin’s – and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians medical assistance program.
Weaving between Plant and Griffin's solo material, a handful of Led Zeppelin covers and 2010's Band of Joy record that first brought them together, the couple showed an obvious respect and admiration throughout the set, singing in unison on "In The Mood," and "What Is And What Should Never Be," with Plant’s still golden, smooth tone joining Griffin’s impassioned and occasionally ragged vocals.
While the night was officially billed as Griffin’s, she and the three-piece backing band let the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer direct the set, upping the tempo of some songs or signaling for section changes on the fly. Intermixed throughout, Plant offered cheerful anecdotes about Led Zeppelin’s recent audience with President Barack Obama at the Kennedy Center Honors, touring with Griffin in the former Soviet Union, and venturing to this legendary roots and country music club the night before from the couple’s nearby home.
As well received as the Griffin and Band of Joy material was, the chance to hear Plant perform reworked versions of Led Zeppelin classics in such a confined space was the obvious draw for most. Beginning with "Black Country Woman," the singer was in complete control, with a swampy blues solo from guitarist David Pulkingham standing in for Jimmy Page’s thunderous guitar work and an Ennio Morricone-esque spaghetti western introduction disguising the opening of "Tangerine."
The songs’ reworked structures might have served a double purpose, as they allowed the 64-year-old Plant to sing those classics in a middle register without stretching his vocals to the caterwauling heights that first set him apart in the Seventies. So even though "Going to California" lacked the thousand-yard force of its middle verse and set closer "Black Dog" kicked off with a deliberate and menacing intro instead of Plant’s iconic "Hey hey mama . . ." solo opening, the performance showed how he’s evolved creatively into a sort of shamanistic roots singer in tandem with his blues and heavy metal-based legacy.
Also scattered throughout the night were touching and bare glimpses of Plant and Griffin’s still-new romance, like his longing gaze her way while singing the "to find a queen without a king" line of "Going to California," or joking about Griffin pushing material from her next album, American Kid, to which she responded, "It’s my show."
It was, after all – which was why after the triumphant stomp of "Black Dog," Plant gave the audience a wave and popped his driving hat back on with a smile, ready to get his lady home for the night.
"House Of Gold"
"Love Throw A Line"
"Poor Man’s House"
"I’m Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone" (speculative – not yet released)
"No Bad News"
"In The Mood"
"Black Country Woman"
"Cold As It Gets"
"What Is And What Should Never Be"
"Going To California"