Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Please Read The Letter

Page and Plant--"Shining In The Light" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"Please Read The Letter" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"When The World Was Young" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"House Of Love" (mp3)
Page and Plant--"Walking Into Clarksdale" (mp3)

Hey, I'm as happy as anyone that Robert Plant and Allison Kraus had such a good showing at the Emmys! I own their cd, and though I never listen to it, I appreciate the musicianship contained therein. I have even written with great eloquence in these pages about my experience at their concert here last April.

But, come on! "Please Read The Letter" gets the Grammy for Record Of The Year? That's a little hard to believe. It isn't even the most popular song on the album. isn't even the best version of the song.

There are a number of things wrong with the music business, and I'm in no mood to articulate all of them here. I'm certainly not cranked about the Grammys; I actually had a pretty good time watching what parts of it I watched. No complaints.

No, instead, I'm going to go in a direction that Billy first mentioned when we were putting this blog together in the first place. He suggested that we would be an alternative to "radio that was on an iron lung." A great metaphor, by the way.

Now, we all know what radio is like, so I don't need to go too far down that road.

Here's what surprised me. It was 1998. I was pretty close to the Class of '99, especially musically. I would battle with them about Phish (I was a late, late convert), mock them about their worship of Pink Floyd (a good, not great, band), and celebrate, of course, anything to do with Led Zeppelin. I was, am, and always will be a fan of that greatest of 70's bands.

But, anyway. So word came out in 1998 that the two remaining pillars of the House of Zeppelin--Page and Plant--would be putting a out a cd of new material. They were coming off of a triumphant largely-acoustic tour that culminated in the Unledded concert cd a year or two earlier. MTV's concept of "unplugged" concerts still entranced America.

So, the cd came out, I bought it, I loved it. It was an update of Led Zeppelin--you knew the songs were Page/Plant originals, but the sound was updated and stripped down, not the multitude of overdubs that you'd expect to hear on a Zeppelin album. It was the sound of a tight, touring band who go soft to loud efficiently.

The more I listened to it, the more I realized that there were a number of radio-friendly songs, even potential hits, songs like "Shining In The Light" and "Please Read The Letter," in particular. The former had the vibe of the Houses of the Holy/ Physical Graffiti era, a blend of acoustic guitars and synthesized strings; the latter sounded like classic Zeppelin, a pretty, melodic ballad with crunching guitars.

So, I started getting curious, wanting to know which songs would emerge as the radio classics. I tuned into the main rock stations in town and waited expectantly. Here were two of the giants of the '70's with a strong, relevant cd. But you know what they were playing on the radio? "Stairway To Heaven." After all, classic rock is classic rock, and rock stations must pretend that the 70's never ended. For the stations that played more contemporary rock, Page and Plant were no longer contemporary.

So, I think the album tanked. At the very least, it didn't bring many new Zeppelin lovers into the fold. And now, "Please Read The Letter" has new life with T-Bone Burnett's NPR-friendly guidance. If you want to hear the great guitarists of a generation--Page, Beck, Clapton (all Yardbirds, by the way)--and among the great guitarists of all time, these days, you've got to hear them on NPR. Same with Dylan and Young.

You've probably got access to the Plant/Kraus version of "Please Read The Letter," the Grammy winner. Give it a listen. It's good. Then click the arrow at the top of this post and hear the original. It's great.

Page and Plant's Walking Into Clarksdale is not available at Itunes.

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