Robert Plant plays a sold out show Tuesday at The Orpheum.
Memphis is the opening date on a 12 stop U.S. tour with Band of Joy. The players have been different in the various incarnations. The first Band of Joy was the band Plant joined as a teenager before signing on as the singer of the band that became Led Zeppelin.
In the city the day before the show, Plant said he was fired from the original Band of Joy in a dispute over the band playing too slow for Plant’s taste at the time.
“The whole deal about my doing this as a singer and writer, really, is can I walk and chew gum. Is it really such a big deal to be a great singer or is there something else about all this?” he said before remembering the band’s first incarnation. “We didn’t work a lot. We stole a lot of milk off doorsteps and siphoned a lot of gasoline. But we kept going and we believed.”
The band that will join Plant on stage at The Orpheum is the fourth incarnation.
“All these things that I’ve been able to do with such a limited gift – it’s phenomenal that I can get this far. … It’s not so much experimentation, it’s like just doing it. You can’t think about it really. You just do it and pray everybody gets off the same bus. Maybe they won’t.”
Plant has played Mud Island several times and has organized the Memphis dates with trips to North Mississippi seeking out the places in the Delta where both obscure and famous bluesmen lived and worked.
He recently took in Tutwiler, Ms. where W.C. Handy reportedly first heard the blues that he popularized and is credited with discovering.
“How can you actually discover something like that?” he wondered aloud. “I was thinking about the debt that the British musician owes to this town – to this area. It’s phenomenal.”
Plant talked about Memphis and more during a press conference at The Orpheum in which he was awarded a note in the theater’s walk of fame. He was also honored by the city with a proclamation proclaiming it Robert Plant Day in Memphis.
“Well, I wish I had had this a bit earlier in my life,” he said. “In fact, I think I did. But, that’s another story.”
The other story was the 1970 Led Zeppelin tour. The band played the Mid-South Coliseum on April 6 and before the show was honored with a proclamation and key to the city from then-Mayor Henry Loeb.
The Coliseum date was remembered in “Hammer of the Gods,” the 1985 unauthorized Led Zeppelin bio by Stephen Davis.
“That night the crowd went berserk when Jimmy (Page) pulled the trigger on ‘Communications Breakdown.’ It was a total Zeppelin blast off and soon ten thousand Southern kids were shaking like pagans,” Davis wrote. “The promoter lost his nerve when he beheld this frenzy and told Peter Grant, (the band’s manager) to pull the group off. Grant said, ‘Go and – yourself, I’m not pulling ‘em offstage.’ So the promoter pulled out his gun, stuck it in Grant’s ample ribs and said, ‘If you don’t cut the show, I’m gonna shoot ya.’ Grant stared him down and laughed in his face. ‘You can’t shoot me, ya –,’ Grant said. ‘They’ve just given us the – keys to the city.’”
Plant, who would have been onstage when all of that transpired, had a different memory 40 years on.
“About three hours later we were under house arrest for creating a riot,” he said. “I saw a cop hit somebody on the head with a night stick, so I hit him with a kind of Roger Daltrey swirl of microphone and knocked his hat off. But this time, I’m not going to do anything like that – an afternoon nap perhaps.”
Plant said he started the tour in Memphis because of the area’s musical heritage and his having a lot of personal connections to Tennessee lately.
“I’m finding it more and more difficult for people in England to understand what I’m trying to say or do. Perhaps, that’s a blessing,” he said. “So if you’re in Nashville, why would you start there? You’ve got to come somewhere where there’s a bit of pulse. Maybe I’m misguided but from what I can remember of being through here a few times, it’s a good place to be. … It’s a place where there’s a bit of soul.”
Some of the Zeppelin questions he fielded by saying he didn’t remember specific events.
“There’s a lot of pain in some of the stuff. It was not a joyride, in those days,” he said. “I guess in truth the best album for people reaching some kind of strange maturity was ‘Presence’ because that’s got a lot of pain in it. That’s got a lot of reality in it. It’s charged. And it’s uncomfortable. I had a girlfriend – I used to play ‘Achilles Last Stand’ really loud, not long ago. And she turned to me one day and she said, ‘I wouldn’t like to get left alone in a room with this.’’”
“What happens to me now. I don’t know,” Plant said at the end of the session. “I guess I’m in the same boat as this theater – they’ll paint me gold again in three years.”