I just came home from seeing Robert Plant and his Band Of Joy at Chicago's Auditorium theatre. Up until two days ago I had no idea I'd be there, but on Friday morning I heard Mr. Plant interviewed on the local radio. He sounded intelligent, thoughtful and interesting. A far cry from the man in the band known for its excess and I was surprised by the interview. And since I've lately been on this "why aren't you grabbing at life more?" kick I thought, Well, here I am, living not three miles from the Auditorium Theater and I'm letting this concert roll by. How foolish is that? I got home, hit the web and found last minute tickets.
Less than twenty four hours later I was sitting twenty feet from this artist and watching him sing songs that bore little resemblence to his Led Zeppelin days. No problem for me, because the band broke up before I began to buy records with my own money. I've never bought a Led Zeppelin album. In contrast, I do have his latest Gone Gone Gone with Alison Krauss and Angel Dance on my ipod.
Like Steven Tyler on the recent country music awards, Plant hits his notes and is a consumate professional. These rock and roll guys can make it happen, can't they? Indeed, the man's voice was astonishing. In this age of auto tune and backing vocal tracks it's always obvious when an artist who didn't work with such crutches appears on stage.
After opening with an unusual arrangement of Black Dog and making the crowd crazy, it became clear as he sang his new music that the audience, though respectful, was itching to hear another Zeppelin song. And as I sat there I thought about artists and how they become brands. How some of the readers I know tell me, "I love John Sandford, but only read his Davenport novels, never his Flowers stuff." But at least those two protagonists belong to the same mystery genre. What Plant was doing was blues infused alternative, far from the hard rock and roll of his Zeppelin days. I wonder if the Sandford fans would tolerate it if he wrote a romance along the lines of Nicholas Sparks? Would they reject him? Force him back into the mystery world?
I was discussing this with a few other writers I know and some pointed out the obvious successes, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Grisham's crime and family novels. And yet, one author friend stated it pretty succinctly: "I don't think authors that are brands can branch out too far. Imagine if Beyonce decided to sing country. It could be the best country album ever, but the fans would probably reject it because it would be too much of a stretch."
But as an artist, part of the creative process requires stretching, learning, imagining and attempting. While the corporations that manage an artist's career may shudder at creative need to try new genres--they know all too well that there are fans who will reject the attempt no matter how well done-I think the artist needs to take that risk. Having done it allows him or her to return to the familiar with a renewed sense of imagination and possibility.
Plant eventually launched into (just two more) Zeppelin songs (Ramble On and Tangerine) and wow, did the audience go wild. As a man who gave me the impression that he rarely laughs out loud, I was heartened to see his face break into a large smile as the crowd roared and rose to its feet. Whatever he must think about being locked into the past, it was clear that he understood that for these fans that part of his history will never go away and his rendition of these old favorites had a fresh new sound. No Jimmy Page shredding and heavy bass, but a cool bluesy vibe that worked.
I also was heartened by the fans. It was clear that they loved him and while they wanted the past, they paid money and listened to his present, which is what I thinks readers do, too. Watching both Plant and his fans embrace the new and honor the past to create a vibrant, still relevant career made me happy that I'd taken the plunge and got off the couch. And I guess it's obvious now that I'm going to have to keep getting up and getting out. Because life-- and art-- should be lived and enjoyed. Don't you agree?