The Train Is Coming

The minstrel warned us that the train is coming.

On an oppressively hot June night in Chicago, Robert Plant sang 13 songs of longing, joy, and carnality with a voice that has grown sweeter and softer over 69 years. His concert was mostly a joyous celebration of life. But if you listened closely as he dipped into his rich songbook, you could hear the minstrel conjuring narrators who contemplated aging, loss, and mortality. Midway through the evening, Plant assumed the voice of a man about to be executed, pleading for the hangman to give him a little more time in “Gallows Pole”:

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile

I think I see my sister coming, riding many mile, mile, mile

Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand

Take him to some shady bower

Save me from the wrath of this man

On “The May Queen,” an aging celebrant sang of time’s passage:

A heart that never falters

A love that never dies

I linger in the shadows

The dimming of my light

An old blues man gazed at death in “Fixin’ to Die”:

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Well, I don’t mind dying

But I hate to leave my children crying

The older you get the more likely you will learn what it is to experience the effects of age, if not on yourself then on someone in your life. In his 69 years, Robert Plant has faced the loss of close family and friends, and nearly the loss of his muse when he almost quit singing after the death of his son, Karac, in 1977. But he is not one to dwell on the past. Since the break-up of Led Zeppelin in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham, Robert Plant has record 14 albums, six of them after he turned 50. He scoffs at those who would question how he stays inspired at an age when many have retired from their work, and he writes songs that celebrate living, not losing. Continue reading

Led Zeppelin Invades Record Store Day

They come from the land of the ice and snow, invading Record Store Day April 21 like land-grabbing Visigoths of Yore: Led Zeppelin recently announced its first-ever Record Store Day release, a 7-inch single consisting of unheard mixes of “Rock and Roll” and “Friends.” Both mixes, produced by Jimmy Page, have elevated Record Store Day from a celebration of vinyl to a homecoming as the band emerges from the mists of Avalon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

“Rock and Roll” is the better known of the two songs, with its rousing opening drums and anthemic power. But “Friends” has always intrigued me more than “Rock and Roll.”

Whereas “Rock and Roll” is powerful a call to arms, “Friends” is a more subtle, evocative song that rewards repeated listening. The second song on Led Zeppelin III, “Friends” captures the mystery, adventure, and musical versatility that has always set Led Zeppelin apart from hard rock bands such as Deep Purple. The song, employing strings and bongo drums, a folk acoustic turn from Jimmy Page, and a piercing Robert Plant vocal, imparts a distinct Middle Eastern vibe that is even more pronounced in the stunning live version that Page and Plant recorded with an Egyptian orchestra in 1994.

A version recorded with the Bombay Orchestra was released as part of the deluxe edition of Coda in 2015, which features a more dissolute vocal from Plant.

When you experience “Friends” in its three most popular versions — the original, the Coda reissue, and the collaboration with the Egyptian orchestra — you can hear the foundation that Led Zeppelin was building for “Kashmir,” five years later. “Friends” stands alone as psychedelic, cross-cultural masterpiece.

Into the Mystic with Robert Plant

I have seen Robert Plant in concert six times throughout his adventurous solo career. As I watched Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters with my family February 20 at The Riviera Theatre, I thought of the lyrics to the Traffic song “Dear Mr. Fantasy”:

“Dear Mr. Fantasy play us a tune
Something to make us all happy
Do anything, take us out of this gloom

Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy”

I sat in the upper recesses of the dark, crowded Riviera Theater alone, as my family and I could not find seats together. To pass the time waiting for the golden lion to take the stage, I got lost in my mobile phone, foolishly getting immersed in the news of the day. It’s harder and harder to go to a concert and block out the ugly realities that define modern-day American society. We live at a time when school children practice active shooter drills and adults fear they cannot afford the cost of growing old. Shutting off the stream of depressing headlines is not always easy in the digital age.

But the moment Robert Plant stepped onstage, I was pulled out of the darkness and transported to another time and place. For watching Robert Plant is like being with a beguiling Elizabethan minstrel who charms the audience with charisma, swagger, and song.

Tuesday night belonged to the fiddle, the dobro, the bendir, the tambourine, and to Plant’s voice, willowy and sweet, tinged with huskiness. He brought us into the mystic, with songs in the tradition of blues and folk such as “The May Queen,” “Little Maggie,” “Fixin’ to Die,” “Gallows Pole,” and “That’s the Way.” He played music of the earth, which he has described as music that grows organically from a mélange of sources, such as folk, world music, and blues. As he shook his mane, glorious and golden, he would not have been out of place playing in the streets of a Renaissance Faire.

He moved about the stage as if he were born there, a shaman comfortable in his own space, nodding with encouragement to his fellow Sensational Space Shifters, such as when guitarist Skin Tyson performed an extended flamenco guitar workout during “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” For a brief moment, he seemed to gyrate in sync with fiddle player Seth Lakeman and guitarists Billy Fuller and Justin Adams, almost like snakes entwined. He and the Sensational Space Shifters made the stage their own world, emanating shafts of across the dark auditorium.

I sang. I cried. I laughed. I forgot where I was as I willingly joined Robert Plant’s brotherhood of song for a night.

Robert Plant is more than a musician. He is a magician who casts a spell of song to take us out of this gloom. He scatters songs into the air like flower petals for us to catch, hold, and savor, before they flutter back to earth to be reborn.

Here are more posts I’ve written about Robert Plant:

The Golden Shaman: Robert Plant’s Journey,” September 25, 2015.

Are You Willing to Fly Blind? Career Advice from Robert Plant,” September 2, 2010.

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.




From Coachella to Jimmy Fallon: Five Ways Classic Rockers Stay Relevant


Photo credit: Matt Becker,

A bunch of old rock and rollers are the toast of Coachella. AC/DC, rebounding after the loss of two key members, played a set April 10 that earned the band the kind of acclaim and attention that any artist would envy. Stereogum rated AC/DC the best act of Coachella’s first day, and The Guardian called the band’s return to the stage after six years a triumph. But by performing at Coachella, one of the de rigueur festivals of the millennial generation, AC/DC achieved something else important: cultural relevancy.

Being relevant to the contemporary zeitgeist is important to classic rock bands that continue performing long after qualifying for AARP membership. After all, rock and roll is supposed to be the music of youth and an influence on contemporary society, not yesterday’s news. No one wants to experience the embarrassment that U2 suffered when many people on social media asked “Who are these guys?” after Apple dropped the band’s latest album on fans via an iTunes download in 2014. Here is a rulebook for relevance that successful classic rockers usually to follow:

1. Embrace Digital

It sounds like fan branding 101 at this point, but some Baby Boomer-era legends are more willing to adopt digital than others. You can find the Rolling Stones on Spotify, but not AC/DC (proving that the band has some work to do yet earning its relevancy stripes). Although the Stones seldom release any new music, the band has effectively used digital channels ranging from the Web to mobile to maintain brand relevancy. Moreover, Joan Jett (being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame April 18), Annie Lennox, and Robert Plant do an excellent job using digital to share their lives and music with their fans. Plant relies on Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube, to tell a narrative of his reinvention as an artist. For instance, he recently posted a documentary on YouTube about his travels to Mali in order to participate in the Festival au Désert.

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How Robert Plant Reinvented Himself


One of the consequences of fame is being pigeonholed. McDonald’s is so well known for serving burgers, fries, and milkshakes that the fast-food giant has struggled to become a credible alternative for salads and smoothies. Sean Connery found it difficult to transition his acting career beyond James Bond. And then there’s the case of Robert Plant. The story of Plant’s solo career reads like a case straight out of Harvard Business School: his audience was changing, he was aging, and the legacy he created with Led Zeppelin threatened to trap him in the past. In my new guest blog post for innovation consultancy BeyondCurious, I discuss how Robert Plant reinvented himself and the lessons that businesses can learn from his journey. As Plant’s career demonstrates, changing your brand requires being adaptable, having patience, and telling your story openly. What brands have successfully changed in your view?

Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

1985 Ken Regan (Weekly FM Japan June 3-16 1985) preview 300

Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:


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Creating Art from Failure: The Design of the “Houses of the Holy” Album Cover

Great artists turn limitations into strengths. Case in point: the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, the subject of my latest post in a series that celebrates memorable album covers.

The story of this astonishing design begins in 1972, when Led Zeppelin, at the height of its creative powers, commissioned the Hipgnosis team, led by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, to design the cover for the band’s new album. Led Zeppelin had already recorded a diverse body of songs for the new LP, ranging from the soaring “Song Remains the Same” to the quiet, romantic “Rain Song.”

But Thorgerson and Powell were given access to none of the songs on the album. The only creative direction the band gave Hipgnosis was that the title of the forthcoming album was Houses of the Holy.

This was no small assignment. Led Zeppelin was one of the world’s most popular and powerful bands, with an image steeped in dark mysticism. As Thorgerson would remember in For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis, “Something large, strong, powerful, awesome and mythic was clearly called for but what would that be?”

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The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV”

Imagine if Apple unveiled the latest iPhone without a logo or if Lady Gaga had released Born This Way without her name, face, or album title on the cover.

That’s what Led Zeppelin did 40 years ago when the band issued its fourth album with a cover consisting solely of a dreary photo: an old man, hunched over with wood sticks stacked on his back — no title, band name, song listing, record label logo, or even a catalog number.

In doing so, Zeppelin committed a masterstroke of marketing brilliance that still resonates today.

The album many of us simply refer to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso) is the subject of an August Classic Rock cover article by Barney Hoskyns, author of Led Zeppelin IV (Rock of the Ages). His article is a worthwhile introduction (although certainly not the only one) to a work that has sold 23 million copies and is ranked among the greatest rock albums of all time by authorities ranging from Rolling Stone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hoskyns not only documents the recording of the album and its landmark songs (“Stairway to Heaven” among them); but he and author Dave Lewis (Led Zeppelin historian and editor of Zeppelin magazine Tight but Loose) also discuss perhaps the most famous album packaging in the history of rock music – a combination of runes and puzzling artwork that inspires conversation even in a digital era that treats albums like relics.

In this post, I expand on the significance of the album design: how it complements the music of Led Zeppelin IV and influences the album’s timeless, mystical appeal. In my view, the success of Led Zeppelin IV is a lesson in creating brand mystique by not over-explaining and instead revealing a few well-chosen clues that provoke discussion.

No Title? No problem

To appreciate the impact of Led Zeppelin IV, I think it’s helpful to understand the album’s historical context. As many rock historians have reported, Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads when it released the album that would help make Zeppelin “one of the biggest bands on the planet” in Hoskyns’s words.

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Old bands, great brands shine in 2010

There seems to be no end to the merchandising of so-called legacy rock stars, and 2010 was no exception:

  • Elder rockers ranging from Robert Plant to Roger Waters made headlines with new music (in Plant’s case) and an updating of a rock classic via a stunning tour (Waters).

As I’ve blogged before, legacy rockers (sometimes from the grave) provide a relatively young art form (rock) the gift of perspective as they come to terms with their past and chart a course for the future. What did they say about themselves in 2010? Here’s my take:

  • “The king is dead. Long live the king.” God bless Robert Plant. After re-uniting with three quarters of Led Zeppelin to perform at London’s O2 arena in 2007, Plant endured tremendous pressure to tour again with his old band mates under the Led Zeppelin banner. But Plant would have none of that. Instead in 2008 he toured with Alison Krauss to promote their celebrated Raising Sand. In 2010, Plant continued to firmly keep Led Zeppelin in his rear-view mirror by releasing his latest solo album, Band of Joy (the name is a reference to one of his bands prior to Zeppelin). Anyone hoping for a Zeppelin reincarnation was disappointed. He chose a quirky mix of Americana covers spanning folk and rock (recorded with lesser known musicians) and embarked on a modest tour in places like the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career.

  • “Remember us.” The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones kept their names in the public eye without releasing any new music. Amid much hoopla, including a weeklong celebration on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Rolling Stones unveiled the remastered Exile on Main St. Months later, Keith Richards, surprising fans with a still-intact and lucid memory, published his 565-page autobiography, Life. In August, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog was released via a massive 30-CD box set retailing for more than $700 — and in an era in which CDs are supposed to be dead, the first-edition limited release sold out. In October, Sony released mono CD editions of Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings from the 1960s (the box set included a thoughtful essay by noted rock historian Greil Marcus). I think that Dylan, the Stones, and the caretakers of Elvis’s brand essentially were re-establishing their places in history for newer generations of rock critics (and it sounds like John Jurgensen at The Wall Street Journal wasn’t convinced). None of them technically released new material (the previously unreleased Exile tracks date back to the making of the original album). Instead, they continued to keep their past achievements relevant (even to the point of the Stones successfully licensing “Gimme Shelter” for use in a video game). I think it’s also significant that the Beatles finally made their music available digitally through iTunes. I don’t think the move was about generating sales (although sales did result) but rather passing the band’s legacy down to digital generations both today and tomorrow.

  • “I am an artist!” It’s no secret that Roger Waters and his ex-Pink Floyd band mates have fought bitterly over who is the rightful owner of the Pink Floyd legacy. In 2010, Waters made a statement in the best way possible: performing the 1979 Pink Floyd classic The Wall as a high-concept solo tour, replete with the construction of a giant wall in the elaborate stage act (as Pink Floyd with Waters did via a limited series of concerts decades ago). So how was The Wall tour different from the re-release of Exile on Main St.? Because Waters re-interpreted and updated the music he wrote in the 1970s as a modern-day statement against corporate greed and bellicose governments (the U.S. war in Iraq among the topics he explored with the modern-day performance of his songs). And having attended one of The Wall concerts, I think he suceeded.

In 2010, we also heard from many other legacy rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and later, in the year, the king of pop, Michael Jackson. I expect 2011 to bring more of the same. And I have mixed feelings about what’s happening here. I think we should give the giants of rock history their due just as newer generations of readers should continue to buy books by Hemingway or pay admission to see the works of Picasso. But for every dollar we spend honoring the gods, rock fans need to be supporting new music financially. How many new and emerging artists have you supported lately by actually paying money to enjoy their music (whether recorded or in concert)?

I hope you’ll make a commitment in 2011 to both the old guard and the vanguard.