The Golden Shaman: Robert Plant’s Journey


Photo credit: Ed Miles

A Robert Plant concert sends you on a journey. On September 23, his concert at Northerly Island took me to the mountains of Appalachia, the plains of the Mississippi Delta, and the west coast of Africa. Great artists always challenge you to leave your comfort zone and follow them, even if the audience is not along for the ride.

The 90-minute concert was populated by many drunk baby boomers apparently obsessed with reliving their past glories of watching Led Zeppelin 40 years ago. But Plant was not catering to the stoned hordes. For those who were paying attention, he was like a musical professor romping through a global songbook that spanned African-tinged material from his new album, Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, his Led Zeppelin catalog, and American blues. If you were paying attention, you could learn a lot, for instance:

  • Africa speaks the language of the blues. He and his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, introduced me to the power of the ritti, a one-string violin played by Fula-tribe in Africa. The ritti produces a high-pitched sound that Plant’s band mate Juldeh Camara played with a frenzied passion on songs such as “Little Maggie” and a reinterpretation of “Whole Lotta Love.” The ritti adds texture to Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar. In concert, Camara played the instrument like a lead guitar, commanding my attention and inspiring me to learn more about the instrument after the concert was over. I found an excellent article that explains the ritti (spelled riti in the article) in context of the evolution of the blues fiddle. The connection between African music and American blues reminded me of something Robert Plant once said onstage when I saw him in 2011: “you can find the origin of the American blues in the Atlas mountains of north Africa.”
  • The spiritual and the carnal are two sides of the same coin. Plant sang with the same passion and bite on sexually charged standards like “Black Dog” as he did on “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” a traditional song from the Carolinas that Plant reinterpreted on his album Band of Joy. Through his sensual body English and growling voice, he made no distinctions between the lustful narrator of “Black Dog” who vows to make a woman sweat and the defiant preacher who spits at Satan. During “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” he segued into “In My Time of Dying,” another traditional song that Led Zeppelin famously adapted on Physical Graffiti. One moment, Plant was wailing, “I heard the voice of Jesus say Satan, your kingdom must come down,” and then suddenly he was singing, “Meet me, Jesus, meet me. Meet me in the middle of the air/If my wings should fail me, Lord. Please meet me with another pair” from “In My Time of Dying.” Robert Plant, at age 67, is undoubtedly aware of his mortality. But he recorded “In My Time of Dying” when he was 26. Hearing the two songs together made me think of Plant in a new light: a man on a spiritual journey. “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t just an epic song but a signpost on the road. Plant is to rock what Al Green is to soul: he comfortably embraces the sensual world while he reaches for something deeper and otherworldly. I am eager to re-listen to his musical catalog in this new context.
  • Bukka White was a badass. I have a fairly decent understanding of most of the blues greats, but Robert Plant reminded me of how little I really know when he called on the ghost of Bukka White during the concert. If you’re a Led Zeppelin fan, you have heard Bukka White even if you don’t know it. White was one of those old-time blues guitarists who lived in the Mississippi Delta, and his recording of “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was covered by Bob Dylan in the early 1960s. Led Zeppelin referred to his song “Shake ‘Em on Down” in “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper” and “Custard Pie.” Plant recorded a version of “Fixin’ to Die Blues” on his 2002 album Dreamland, and he showcased the sad, mournful power of the song during his concert at Northerly Island. For many Chicagoans, the blues begins and ends with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, but Robert Plant reminded us that the Mississippi Delta produced a mother lode of influential musicians who sang of hard times and impending death, which was always around the corner for them. Amid his onstage patter, Plant name-checked Bukka White as he paid tribute to the blues giants who shaped his own career. Then Plant stopped talking and let his singing tell the story as he whispered the lyrics, “Feelin funny in my mind lord I believe I’m fixin to die,” and channeled the sense of mortality and spiritual longing that White introduced in 1940. Plant mentioned long-forgotten artists such as Bukka White and the Stanley Brothers of Appalachia, laughingly comparing their popularity to that of Journey while making it clear he worships the ground the old guard walked on.

The golden god of the 1970s has become a golden shaman, dancing on a stage as he extends his hands and invites you to experience what Plant described as a “benediction of spirit and soul.” If you are willing to join him, Robert Plant enriches your life long after he is done singing.




Keith Richards: The Old Man Keeps Growing


Keith Richards is a crotchety old man. He hates new music. He gives the stink eye to some famous old music, too (he told Esquire that Sgt. Peppers was “rubbish”). He told Billboard recently that he seldom gets out anymore at age 71, and he ignores modern technology. But he’s not your typical 71-year-old man grandfather. He is still touring and still making music, including Crosseyed Heart, his new album. He is also the subject of a new documentary, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, directed by Morgan Neville. The Keith Richards in Under the Influence shows us that growing old does not mean you stop growing, even if you get a little crotchety.

If you’re hoping for a story about a 71-year-old hell raiser, Under the Influence will disappoint you. Instead, the documentary unfolds casually. We follow Keith around as he visits sources of the music that has influenced him for 50 years: places such as Chess Records in Chicago and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Along the way, he recalls the great artists who shaped his career, including Howlin’ Wolf and, famously, Muddy Waters. (An interviewer in the documentary notes that having worshipped old blues mainstays all his life, Keith has become an old mainstay.)

The “Keith on the Road” moments have a staged look about them, such as when he’s shooting pool with Buddy Guy, but the road has always been a stage for Keith Richards. By contrast, he seems relaxed and at ease during the scenes that take place in his home, where he plays blues on his turntable and spins oft-told yarns familiar to Rolling Stones fans. He speaks in half sentences that dissolve into a series of grunts and chuckles that recall Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the Penguin in Batman. He comes across like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving.


He often reflects on the passage of time. As the camera follows Richards walking barefoot in the grass, his voice is heard saying, “You’re not grown up until the day they put you six feet under. You’re never grown up.” Later, he muses, “Life’s a funny thing. Nobody wants to get old, but they don’t want to die young, either.”

Keith Richards deals with getting old by creating. In the movie’s most powerful moments, he hangs out in the record studio as he and his bandmates make Crosseyed Heart. He sounds unpolished. His singing makes Bob Dylan sound like Luciano Pavarotti in his prime, belying the smoother and more polished sound of Crosseyed Heart, which is a soulful and inspired like a quirky uncle you see once a year at Thanksgiving. work I have already listened to several times.

The studio scenes are bold and brave because you hear a draft of a work in progress — a glimpse at Keith while he’s still figuring out the songs. But those scenes are the heart of the movie. He looks happy as he lives in the moment, jamming with ease.

“I love recording in any studio,” he says. “I feel totally at home.”


Richards speaks of the music he creates with the bewilderment of a boy who is just learning how to play the guitar. “Music is the center of everything,” he says. “It’s undefinable, and nobody’s ever going to have the answer to it, but it’s great fun exploring.” When he speaks of music, he sounds youthful.

I believe the truth of Under the Influence reveals itself during those scenes when Keith Richards is in the studio, creating music. This crotchety old man may sound like he has many miles on his voice, but he is not working. He is playing. And I think a sense of play is the secret to his creating and growing at age 71. How about you? Do you inject a sense of play into your life no matter what you do to earn a living?

“Wish You Were Here”: The Art of Absence


Two men, one of them in flames, shake hands in a studio back lot. The image of a nude woman emerges from a red veil. A diver breaks the waves of a lake without creating a splash or ripple in the water. Those evocative images form the elements of the album art for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, released 40 years ago September 12. Wish You Were Here, a rueful meditation on absence and loss, is as memorable for its artful packaging as it is for its music.

Pink Floyd released Wish You Were Here in the wake of the massive commercial success of The Dark Side of The Moon, released in 1973. By the time the band started recording Wish You Were Here, the Floyd (David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright) was experiencing enormous pressure and dissolution. Before The Dark Side of the Moon, the Floyd was a popular progressive rock band with a cult following. The Dark Side of the Moon made the Floyd mainstream rock superstars. The band struggled with all the demands that fame thrust upon them, including the rigors of touring, making their fans happy, and living up to the expectations of record executives. An inability to handle fame contributed to an internal dissension that began to slowly destroy Pink Floyd (although the collapse of the Roger Waters-era Floyd would not occur for years yet).

The Floyd responded with an album that is both a sarcastic slap in the face to the music industry (through songs such as “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine”) and a sad farewell to the band they could never be again (“Wish You Were Here” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” understood to be about ex-Floyd member Syd Barrett but also having broader meanings about the loss of a different time in the band’s history).

As was the case with The Dark Side of the Moon, the album packaging was (and remains) a sensory experience, including a black shrink-wrap, stunning front-and-back covers, mysterious inner sleeve, sticker, and a postcard. The theme of absence unified most of the elements. For instance, the woman in the inner sleeve is absent from first viewing. You must strain to find her form in the image of a red veil.


The diver in the postcard insert is mostly absent from view, and ripples are absent from the lake where his body breaks the water.


In the book 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves, Wish You Were Here designers (and long-time Floyd collaborators) Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson provided more insight into the connection between the postcard and the theme:

The title clearly derives from the theme of absence. It is an ironic request that implies the opposite, referring to postcards sent from abroad by people who are probably rather pleased that you’re not around. Your absence is what is wished for, not your presence. Accordingly a postcard came with every vinyl package.

In the context of an insincere postcard greeting, the album title indeed can be interpreted as a kiss-off to everyone that Pink Floyd wanted to keep at arm’s length as the pressures of fame began to crush the band. “Wish you were here” could easily mean, “Wish you were not part of my life anymore. Wish I could turn back the clock when I could make myself absent from you.”

The most famous element of the album packing consists of the front cover, which depicts two men shaking hands in a studio back lot. They both symbolize stereotypical corporate executives — the type who ignorantly ask, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?” in the song “Have a Cigar” which opens Side 2 of the album. They are dressed in conservative suits and dark shoes. Both of the white men have well coiffed hair. But one of them is in flames. As Powell and Thorgerson explained,

The theme of the album duly surfaced as “absence” — emotional and physical absence. In relationships, when people withdraw their commitment — their emotional presence — and become absent, it is often for fear of getting hurt or being “burned.” Hence a burning man — a man on fire.

To create the effect of the burning man, the design team doused stuntman Ronnie Rondell (wearing an asbestos suit and wig) with gasoline and set him on fire. According to Powell and Thorgerson, the wind blew the flames against his face, burning his real moustache. Rondell was philosophical about the shoot, saying, “It was pretty easy to do, not too life threatening, and paid well.”


An out-take from the album cover shoot.

On the album’s back cover, another corporate type — this time a businessman in a suit and a hat — offers a copy of Wish You Were Here, leaving no doubt as to how Pink Floyd felt about the record company machinery the band was feeding. In the words of Powell and Thorgerson, “[The image] embodied Floyd’s critique of the corporate side of the music business. Biting the hand that feeds, perhaps.”


Wish You Were Here became Pink Floyd’s fastest selling album ever. In the United States, the album shot to Number One on the Billboard charts in its second week of release. The album received a mixed reception, as some critics did not know what to make of the sprawling, epic sound of lengthy tracks such as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (clocking in at 25 minutes and broken into two parts). But like the best of Pink Floyd’s albums created during the 1970s, Wish You Were Here would gain a place in the pantheon of great rock albums, routinely making “greatest album of all time” lists from publications such as Q and Rolling Stone. By 2004, the album had sold 13 million copies. In 2011, Wish You Were Here was released in the form of a lavish box set that included a version in 5.1 surround sound.

When I listen to Wish You Were Here today, I feel sadness, absence, and loss in the music and lyrics, especially the title track:

How I wish, how I wish you were here.

We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,

Running over the same old ground.

What have we found?

The same old fears.

Wish you were here.

By expressing the vibe of the songs through visual storytelling, the album packaging endures as a powerful complement to the music. Think about how Pink Floyd intended to tell its story through music, words, and artwork the next time you reduce Wish You Were Here to a digital commodity on Spotify.

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

#Kanye2020: Brilliant Branding, Bro

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 8.53.29 PM The Kanye West brand is like a Ferrari careening down a highway. Sometimes you want to watch the spectacle. Other times you want to get out of the way. And then there are times when you wish you were in the front seat. Kanye’s recent presidential election announcement makes me want to grab the steering wheel.

Kanye launched his #Kanye2020 campaign August 30 during the MTV Video Music Awards, where he received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, presented by none other than Taylor Swift. Obviously, MTV engineered the moment to create fireworks and ratings. After all, Kanye and Swift were parties to one of the most awkward moments in TV history in 2009, when Kanye ungraciously dissed Smith onstage for winning a video award he believed she did not deserve. Although the two have mended fences since then, they are hardly BFFs, and Kanye West is unpredictable under any circumstance. What kind of Kanye would accept the award from Swift? A defiant Kanye? Bombastic, perhaps?

Well, Kanye hijacked the moment from MTV, refusing to take the bait. Instead, he delivered a rambling but fascinating discourse on art, self-acceptance, and media manipulation that had the crowd cheering for several minutes. He admitted to making mistakes in the way he expressed himself and his passion for art (an obvious reference to the 2009 incident) but affirmed his love of art and the power of ideas, before announcing his bid for presidency.

The audience was eating out of his hands, even if no one was entirely certain they understood what he was talking about. He had engineered his mic drop.

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Own the Stage


Photo credit: Elizabeth Singer.

At some point in your life, you will need to learn how to work a stage properly, whether you are a student presenting a paper to your classmates or an executive sharing company news with your employees. Make no mistake: you are on stage, however informal the setting or small the audience. The key to owning the stage is using your body wisely — including your eyes, voice, and gestures. How you communicate is as important as what you communicate, as I have learned while acting on summer weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. On August 30, an opportunity to act in a scene with my daughter encapsulated the elements of owning a stage.

As I have discussed on my blog, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is a festival in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. I portray a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright — a self-important and crotchety character who is constantly having his nose tweaked by a mischievous young rogue named Avis Nightjar, portrayed by my daughter, Marion.


The crotchety Nicolas Wright. Photo credit: Mary Goljenboom.

The Faire cast is given extensive preparation and then an incredible amount of leeway to construct dramatic (usually comic) scenes that we perform on the streets of Bristol to delight the patrons as they explore the city. On August 30, Marion and I acted a scene that required us to use a very small stage consisting of a few wooden steps leading to a square platform that accommodates one or two people at most. The riser, known as the “stump stage,” is so small it does not appear on the Bristol map. But its convenient location at a busy intersection made it the best place for our dramatic bit, which consisted of Nicolas Wright publicly charging Avis Nightjar with a list of ridiculous crimes ranging from poltroonery to hooliganism.


Avis Nightjar, rogue extraordinaire. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

We built the scene to involve Bristol patrons. Throughout the weekend, Nicolas Wright let it be known that Nightjar would be put on trial Sunday at 6:15 p.m. He canvassed patrons to ask their opinion of her guilt or innocence and invited them to be present at the stump stage to learn the outcome of her trial.


Wanted. Photo credit: Brian Schultz.

When the time came to declare the verdict, Nicolas Wright, with the help of a fool named Jaclyn Faltrades (portrayed by Terri Williams), attracted a large crowd to gather around the stump stage. Wright, standing on the stage, formally read to Nightjar a list of her alleged crimes (a moment that I borrowed from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, when the character of Tuco is read an extensive list of crimes for which he has been convicted). He then asked the crowd to render their opinion.


Day of reckoning. Photo credit: Brian Berg.

Wright played up the moment with over-the-top bluster, making himself look foolish, and Nightjar watched from one of the lower steps with an innocent expression on her face. Of course, the overwhelming majority voted for her innocence. Wright allowed a pregnant pause to linger in the air while he pondered the vote, making eye contact with as many patrons as possible while he thought through his decision. His smile suggested a softening of his heart. Then he pronounced the verdict: guilty.

The crowed booed and hissed, and Nightjar cowered while Wright raised his arms for order. Wright asked Nightjar if she had anything to say for herself before he sent her to the stockade. The trial then took an unexpected turn, just as Marion and I had planned it: Nightjar stepped up to the platform, stood alongside Wright, and turned the tables on the barrister by threatening to expose a number of shady business deals of his. As she talked, Nightjar became more animated, waving her arms and smiling while Wright grimaced and shrank back. The crowd started to laugh, clap, and cheer for Avis as Wright sputtered and demanded she cease talking.

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Will Beacons Help Target Improve the Shopping Experience?


Target recently announced the rollout of beacons at 50 stores in Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle. Beacons are devices placed in locations that make it possible to share content (such as offers) with a person’s mobile device. Through beacons, Target will offer deals and product recommendations as customers shop at their local Targets. With nearly 1,800 stores in the United States and a strong brand, Target joins a growing list of major retailers putting a greater emphasis on location marketing via beacons. The news is significant because it demonstrates how technology and data together can create more relevant and useful customer experiences at scale.

In its announcement, Target emphasized how beacons can deliver content such as deals on products that might interest shoppers while they are in a store. People who opt in via a Target app will receive offers for products on a “Target Run” app home page as they navigate their local Target stores. As Target explained on its website:

Let’s say you’re browsing women’s apparel. You might get an alert about nearby items that are trending on Pinterest. As you move over to get your groceries, and you may see the “Target Run” page updated with a department-wide offer or a Cartwheel deal for items like Archer Farms Organic milk or Market Pantry cheese.

I believe the success of the rollout depends on how well Target enhances the in-store shopping experience. Cross-selling products can help or hurt the experience depending on how well Target tracks customer activity and pinpoints offers at the right time and place.  What really catches my attention is the potential for Target to make shopping easier without selling anything. For instance, customers will be able to dynamically re-sort their shopping lists as they move through a Target. (Target compares the experience to smartphone apps rerouting drivers depending on their routes.) Target also plans it possible for shoppers to use the Target app to ask for customer assistance — which could be a boon especially during the holiday shopping season, if Target staffs its stores adequately.

On the SIM Partners blog, I discuss more fully the implications of Target’s launch of beacons. I invite you to read my post and let me know your reaction.