Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gospel flavor from Robert Plant's future touring bandmates at festival in Texas

Twice yesterday, I watched three-fifths of the lineup that will comprise Robert Plant's touring band this summer. Future Band of Joy members Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin played afternoon and evening sets together at the Old Settler's Music Festival in Driftwood, Texas. The presence of drummer Marco Giovino creates a quorum of the touring lineup backing Plant on a 12-city tour this July with additional dates said to follow.

Buddy Miller, as one of two guitarists on Plant's extensive "Raising Sand" tour in 2008, may have been just as responsible for the guitar sound night in and night out as was album producer T Bone Burnett. Much of the tremolo-preferring ambiance and chunky offbeat 9th-chords that marked Plant's latest outing is in evidence onstage for the current effort, a testament to the Nashville musician's influence on the sounds heard in 2008.

Miller is the one in producer mode now, being the focal point of Plant's forthcoming album, slated for release late this summer or in early fall on Rounder Records. Miller's also lent his talents to two other albums this year, including a disc showcasing himself and fellow guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell with multiple vocalists (no release date announced yet). Griffin's Miller-produced gospel effort Downtown Church, which was released in January on the Credential label, was a significant contributor to the festivities at the final night of the Old Settler's Music Festival; a good portion of the disc featured in Griffin's evening set on the Hill Country Stage.

Onstage, she credited Miller with teaching her "about all that gospel music." They're currently on tour supporting her disc, and this Austin-area festival date is their second stop in Griffin's home state. She said her producer is "a walking encyclopedia of all-American roots music [and has] 75,000 songs on his iTunes. He really does. He sent me about 500 songs just to get started, learning the gospel music." Hearing his gospel suggestions from the Bob Dylan songbook inspired her to write some original material modeled after it, specifically "Little Fire" on Downtown Church. (On the studio track, her voice is complemented by that of Emmylou Harris.)

Halfway through Miller's afternoon solo set on the Hill Country Stage, he welcomed his previously unannounced guest vocalist and brought her out to duet with him on some songs that were mostly featured on Written in Chalk, his 2009 album with wife and collaborator Julie Miller. The sharpest of these songs was "Gasoline and Matches," which might ordinarily be considered a little heavy for the Old Settler's Music Festival if it were not for Miller's onstage lead-in, the Lee Boys, a funky jam band centered around a master of the pedal steel guitar and some dance beats. This brought the swaying hippie sect in full force to the front of the stage under the sunshine.

Soon, that sunshine gave way to clouds, then drizzle, and all-out thunderstorms, before calming for the evening with an ongoing electrical light show on the horizon. The inevitable effects were mud everywhere and electrical hazards onstage crudely averted by the placement of sweatshirts on the electrical equipment mid-set. Griffin, in particular, said she was impressed with the dogged determination of the crowd to stick around with her for both sets. "You are some tough, tough Texans," she commented.

If either set contained any material destined for Plant's album, it wasn't announced to the audience. However, the onstage introduction of Buddy Miller in the afternoon included mention of the former Led Zeppelin frontman, courtesy of Roger Allen, who hosts "Lone Star State of Mind" Friday nights on KGSR 93.3 Radio Austin.

"I want to talk to you [for] a second about what's about to happen," the DJ said onstage next to Miller, "because this guy has been traveling with Robert Plant." Cue the screams of appreciation from the diverse crowd. "He's winning all kinds of awards from all kind of people." Cue more screams. "He's actually been traveling with the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant show, and I think, this summer, you're gonna be back in Austin, Texas, playing with Robert Plant." Miller nodded. People screamed again. "Pretty good gig."

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