Last night, Robert Plant dropped in at a dimly lit bar in the East Village near the end of a listening session for his newest album, Band of Joy, and for a few brief moments, admitted he didn't know what to talk about. "Should I tell you about the Butter Queen and the Plaster Casters in Chicago?" he said, referencing some of the most famous groupies in rock history. "That's not quite as relevant now as back then — and penicillin is easily available now."
Holding a microphone in front of a small crowd at New York's Back Room, the Led Zeppelin frontman quickly changed the subject to the new disc, due September 14th on Rounder Records. Band of Joy follows the intimate, moody vibe of his Grammy-winning collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, but the songs are more powerful, like the blazing spiritual classic "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" and a hard-driving take on "Harm's Swift Way," a rare Townes Van Zandt track.
Band of Joy was originally Plant's experimental blues outfit in Birmingham, England, from 1966 to 1968, which helped earn him the nickname "The wild man of the blues from the Black Country." John Bonham joined in 1967. While Plant's Zep days were often too demanding to allow him time to appreciate American music, one of his earliest singles was a cover of the Rascals' "You Better Run" in 1966. Plant was 17, playing with the Tennessee Teens for Columbia Records, and says the track went nowhere. "It disappeared without a trace," he remembered. "Forty-one years later, I finally decided that it was worth working with American musicians."
Resurrecting the Band of Joy, Plant picked out top-notch roots musicians and session players for the group: multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott, guitarist and co-producer Buddy Miller, drummer Marco Giovino and bassist Byron House. "I'm working with arch-bishops of good taste," Plant said.
The band first hit the studio last December, recording in the 10 days leading to Christmas, but Plant was a bit disappointed with the results. "It sounded like Moby Grape outtakes," he said. "I was in absolute heaven. But I took it home and realized there was absolutely nothing that kicked up." He called up Patty Griffin and asked her "to add her Shangri Las-type vocals," Plant said. The singer gave the group the jolt Plant was seeking: "After Christmas, we went into overdrive."
"People say to me, 'How do we know what you're going to do next?' " he said. "And I have no idea what I will do. I just know that the first four hours when you meet musicians are the most crucial in your life with those guys. You know then whether there's something really magical there or if you're just churning it out. I don't like to go anywhere near that latter condition." After speaking about musical magic, he overheard King Khan and the Shrines' "I Wanna Be a Girl" playing on the bar's stereo and demanded to know the name of the garage-rock band.
Band of Joy hits stores September 14th, but Plant and his Band of Joy will tour before that, hitting 12 Southern cities in July. "I'm happy to be in what seems to be a familiar condition," he said. "I'm touring without a record. In this day and age, the Eagles can't even do that."