By David Menconi
RALEIGH -- All musical roads lead South. And Robert Plant, of all people, stands as living proof of that.
Onstage Wednesday night at Memorial Auditorium, the former Led Zeppelin frontman offered up a 21-song salute featuring covers by English folk-rock guitar deity Richard Thompson, Minnesota rock band Low, Chicano-rock band Los Lobos and, of course, his old band. And it all came out sounding like spooky Old Testament gospel from deepest Appalachia. None of that feel-good New Testament stuff for this bunch, no sir.
Plant is touring nowadays with an ensemble dubbed Band of Joy (named after his pre-Zeppelin band, circa 1967). It's sort of an Americana version of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, led by the iconic Nashville guitarist and all-around good guy Buddy Miller. Everyone got individual star turns, during which Plant would graciously slip out of the spotlight and contribute discrete backup vocals from the rear of the stage.
Stepping into the Alison Krauss role as Plant's female vocal foil, Patty Griffin acquitted herself well, especially with a house-shaking solo turn on "Move Up." But the true show-stealer was Darrell Scott, who gave Miller a run for his money on electric guitar as well as contributing mandolin, pedal steel, banjo and other acoustic instruments, plus outstanding vocals. His reading of "Satisfied Mind" was a highlight.
So was the opening act, North Mississippi Allstars, lately a duo of guitarist Luther Dickinson and his drummer brother Cody. They kicked the evening off with 40 minutes of terrific down-home swamp rock, highlighted by Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" and a closing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"/"Amazing Grace" gospel medley. They got a very full sound for just two players, especially when Cody completely filled the room with spirals of skittery rhythms on an electric washboard.
As for the headliner's set, the best part was seeing what Plant and band would do with Led Zeppelin songs. They wasted no time getting right to that, opening with "Black Dog" rendered as a sort of sledgehammer glide (complete with audience sing-along). "Houses of the Holy" came soon after.
But it wasn't all just hits. Plant also dipped into the obscure corners of his old band's catalog with "Tangerine" and "Gallows Pole" from "Led Zeppelin III," a strange and folksy album nobody quite knew what to make of back in 1970. By now, "III" sounds like a forerunner to modern-day freak-folk, and those songs fit right in Wednesday night.
So did the encore version of "Rock and Roll," in a sort of rockabilly arrangement that Chuck Berry might have appreciated, and most of all "Ramble On" -- which Scott took from Middle Earth to the Middle East with some fascinatingly strange modal droning. Plant's rambling days are far from finished, and that's a good thing.