Bands take time to find themselves. At first, they’re strangers in search of a sound — a signature that says more about them together than any individual player’s style could alone. If they don’t find it, they’ll end up as just hired hands, punching the clock for the pushiest player’s vision.
Band of Joy learned that the hard way. In 2010, leader Robert Plant gathered some well-seasoned musicians in Nashville for a project meant to follow up a wildly successful band he’d formed with Alison Krauss. Raising expectations even higher, Plant named his new fivesome after the band he played in with drummer John Bonham, just before the two got tapped for some group named Led Zeppelin.
Unfortunately, the studio CD Band of Joy concocted ended up sounding like a pale and constipated sequel to the Krauss project. Only after they went on tour did the tentative new group find itself as a band — in the most stirring sense of the term, no less.
Proof lies in a new DVD, “Live From the Artists Den,” which captures Band of Joy’s date in Nashville (where they recorded their stodgy studio work). The DVD mirrors my memory of the Beacon show from the same tour in January 2011, a performance which ranks among the most electrifying I’ve seen Plant give. And, yes, that includes the Zeppelin dates I saw in the ’70s.
Only on the road did Band of Joy learn to play in intimate synch. The rhythm section of bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovino lay down a deep and warming foundation for the rest to play away on. Giovino sits way back in the beat, leaving lots of room for the high-flying solos of pedal steel player Darrell Scott and ax-man Buddy Miller. Miller emerges as a full-fledged guitar hero in the flamboyant ’60s fashion.
If Miller adds the strongest rock influence, the others bring in tricked-out elements of country, folk and blues.
Zeppelin touchstones like “Black Dog” hew closer to swamp blues, oozing with voodoo beats that come straight from the bayou. Zep’s “Tangerine” exaggerates its original country twang, while “Houses of the Holy” moves from psychedelia to a roots-rock swing.
Besides the six Zeppelin songs, Band of Joy offer cuts from their studio album, but with far more grease, along with a Plant solo song (“In the Mood”) and some gospel and folk pieces. The latter cuts allow the other singers to show their mettle, including the churchy shouts of Patty Griffin on “Move Up,” and the caring moans of Darrell Scott and Miller on their leads.
Plant himself pares down his vocals from his Golden God role to become a credible country raconteur. Perhaps the only letdown is the take on Zep’s “Rock ’n’ Roll,” which returns it to rote rockabilly — exactly what the 1971 original subverted.
Luckily, in the rest, Joy wind up idealizing the very notion of a live band — one that seems both ruthlessly tight and utterly free all at once.