ROBERT PLANT WEEK ON TBL: ROBERT PLANT TBL ARCHIVE DAY 4 – FROM THE PRIORY TO DREAMLAND
To celebrate Thursday’s Robert Plant London Forum gig, it’s Robert Plant week on TBL with daily archive postings. Today we look back to the immediate Page & Plant era that took Robert Plant from the Priory Of Brion into Dreamland.
ROBERT PLANT – FROM THE PRIORY TO DREAMLAND
“Outside my window, strange things come every night and day, It’s strange, so very very strange…”
Robert Plant sang these opening lines from Donovan’s ‘Season Of The Witch’ directly in front of me as he moved centre stage in the tiny Boardwalk club in Sheffield on the night of September 25, 1999. It was the first time I’d seen Robert’s band Priory Of Brion and – as the song implied – it was very, very strange to see him in a small club venue again. It was the start of yet another fascinating journey that would bring Plant into closer proximity to his audience than at any time in the previous two decades.
The repertoire he performed was a virtual music history lesson of the late Sixties and along the way it drew attention to the many influences Robert took on board to shape his style in the Midlands before Zep took off. Ultimately his work with the Priory would provide the foundation for further developments within Strange Sensation, the band that would support the recording of his first solo record in nine years.
This piece traces the development of Robert Plant’s post Page/Plant career drawing on material and interviews documented at the time in TBL issues 14, 15and 16. From the Priory to Dreamland this is yet another twist to the story…
On December 10, 1998, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page took to the stage at the Bercy Omnisports Arena in Paris. They were a late addition to a special Amnesty Charity show which featured performances from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Radiohead and Peter Gabriel. It was the final date of a yearlong tour that had commenced the previous February in Eastern Europe. But for Robert Plant it was one gig too many. Tiring of the endless hotel to gig to hotel to gig treadmill, he was mapping out a very different agenda that would not include Jimmy. Their 27-minute six-song mini set would prove to be the last in this format.
“Coming away from that Amnesty gig I thought it was too far off,” said Robert later. “Everything had become remote. I felt I was too far away from everybody. I’d been marooned in hotels in the middle of nowhere knowing there’s something happening back in England. I thought ‘I’ve only got one life. I’m in the wrong spot’.”
Page and Plant had intended to continue their tour into Japan and Australia in early 1999, but over Christmas Plant decided enough was enough. “I’d just had enough. There was a spring coming and I thought how many springs can you see now. I needed to lose the game for a while.”
On January 21, to the surprise of Page and manager Bill Curbishley, Robert informed them that he would not be undertaking the Japan-Australia leg of the tour. He wanted to take time out from his collaboration with Page, thus signalling the end of the renewed partnership that had dominated the past five years.
Plant retreated to his Worcestershire home, had his hair cut swept back shorter style and chilled out. In late January he recorded a version of Moby Grape’s Skip Spence song ‘Little Hands” for release on the Skip Spence tribute album more More Oar. It was definite pointer to where he was heading musically.
In the early summer he began rehearsing with Kevyn Gammond , his long time friend and neighbour with whom he played in the Band Of Joy, along with local musicians Andy Edwards on drums, Paul Timothy on keyboards and guitar and Paul Wetton on bass. Plant had previously performed with Gammond and Edwards in an ad-hoc line up at the annual party for his local tennis club in Bewdley in late 1997.
Robert saw this as his next logical move. “It seemed a lot of bands were a pastiche of the golden era of the Sixties with that jingle jangle sound. I said to Kevyn we used to do that… let’s do it again. He said he knew some great guys at the collage who were teaching and did a lot of mixing and dance music and had played in bhangra bands in Birmingham. So we had a rehearsal in a barn and it was thrilling.”
Their repertoire was a mixture of songs that took Robert’s fancy before the advent of Zeppelin. They centred around the West Coast late Sixties sound of Moby Grape, Love, Jefferson Airplane, The Youngblood’s and Buffalo Springfield. Some had even been part of the Band Of Joy’s set list. “These songs are the cornerstone to a period of my life. I’ve been touched and moved by these songs. They’ve got such depth and I’ve sung them forever in the shower. I’ve always wanted to sing them so I’m singing them now. I’m on holiday and that’s what I want to be,” he told a local reporter at the time.
In a move that mirrored his back to the roots approach in the immediate post Zep period with the pickup R&B band The Honeydrippers, Plant began by playing a series of low key club dates. The first was on Friday July 23 at the Three Tuns at Bishop’s Castle, advertised with a poster designed by Robert on his home computer.
The set included their interpretations of Love’s ‘House Is Not Motel’, ‘Bummer In the Summer’ and 7 And 7 Is’, The Youngblood’s’ ‘Darkness Darkness’, a psychobilly arrangement of Cliff s Richards’ ‘Move It’, ‘No Regrets’ by The Walker Brothers, Gloria’ by Them and Billy Fury’s ‘Wondrous Place’.
Dubbing the line up “Priory Of Brion featuring founder members of The Band Of Joy”, they turned up at choice locations such as the Queen Mary Ballroom at Dudley Zoo, in a tent at the Ashby Del La Zouch Folk Festival and in the Central Station nightclub in Wrexham. The name was adapted from the secret Knights Templers society called Priory Of Zion. “I changed it slightly, remembering in the film The Life Of Brian how reverential people in be over nothing. And I thought after the career I’ve had – all B ‘we are not worthy shit’, well, that name was spot on.”
Commenting on his position with Page, Plant said: “This year I’ve turned down a couple of things that have affected my situation with Jimmy. We were asked to headline the revived Woodstock I Festival and then Neil Young asked us to play the Bridge benefit in an Francisco. I told my manager I couldn’t just have four days rehearsal and start playing Led Zeppelin songs again. There was a bit of an outcry and they said, ‘Well you just do what you want and then let us know when you feel like coming back’.”
This new band provided fans with a rare closeness to the singer and as word spread the Priory Of Brion built up an ardent following. On December 18th they performed at the Zodiac Club in Oxford supported by Tim Rose. Plant brought Rose on stage to join him in a duet of ‘Morning Dew’, originally a hit for Rose in 1967. Robert’s delight at having established an alternative outlet to perform was obvious. He told Folk Roots magazine: “With the Priory the music doesn’t have any reference to time or style. And I don’t think I’ve ever sung better. I couldn’t have sung these songs like this before. I can let my voice swoop and spar and dip and glide and hit those Arabic quarter notes in a way I couldn’t do on something like ‘Heartbreaker’.”
After holidaying in India, in the new millennium Plant regrouped with the Priory for more dates, including appearances in Stoke, Cambridge and Northampton. Now sufficiently confident to announce dates upfront and happy for his name to be’ tagged on, Plant took the band across Europe for a series of festival dates in the summer. In the UK they played well received sets at Glastonbury, the Cambridge Folk Festival and the annual Fairport Convention bash at Cropredy. In Europe they played the Nice Jazz Festival, supporting the Count Basie Orchestra and Billy Cobham. In between Robert reunited briefly with Jimmy to record the Sonny Burgess track ‘My Bucket’s Got Hole In It’ for the Sun Records tribute album (and in July 2001 he again reunited with Page for a rockabilly set at the Sun Records tribute night at the Montreux Festival).
In September the Priory booked time at Mono Valley Studios in Monmouth, cutting versions of ‘Morning Dew, ‘Evil Woman’ – a track he performed live in the Sixties with The Band of Joy – and Elmer Gantry’s ‘Flames’.
The recordings were more for Plant’s own reference than for release on an album. “I don’t want to play the game because the process is too time consuming,” he said. “The whole process of the Priory is that I have nothing to prove other than I can still sing really well. So to do it on any level where I would want to see results beyond that would defeat the object.”
It was this lack of firm direction, however, that would ultimately signal the end of the project. After a further round of UK gigs they flew to Greece for a four day stint. Three Christmas dates followed in Crewe, Derby and Wolverhampton. Perhaps significantly, on that final home date Plant finally relented and performed Zep’s ‘Thank You’ as a final encore. After over 70 shows in the space of 18 months The Priory Of Brion experience was over. Management pressure to record a new solo album led Robert to close this chapter of his career, but he would compromise by covering these late Sixties songs but employing a group of more high profile musicians with which to present them.
Robert entered 2001 with a series of outstanding Scandinavian dates to fulfil. Rather than return with the Priory line up he formed Strange Sensation – an entirely new band featuring long term Page/Plant band member Charlie Jones on bass; ex-Jah Wobble and Sinead 0′ Connor guitarist Justin Adams; John Baggott on keyboards (known for his work with Massive Attack); and drummer Clive Deamer, whose previous credits included Portishead. Also back in the fold was Port Thompson, the ex-Cure guitarist who had toured with Plant and Page on the Unledded tour in 1995. The deployment of these better known musicians suggested that a return to full time music was imminent.
The new line up made their debut in Denmark in April. An altogether more serious affair, the new band took on more elaborate arrangements of Priory Of Brion staples such as ‘Season Of The Witch’, ‘Morning Dew’ and A House Is Not A Motel’, and the set also included a smattering of Zeppelin numbers, amongst them ‘Four Sticks’, ‘In The Light’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Plant took the band to America for six late spring dates and after more summer festival dates they began recording at Rak Studios.
The resulting album with the Strange Sensation line up was titled Dreamland and issued in June 2002. It was an eclectic collection with Plant on peak form vocally, turning in pleasing renditions of ‘Morning Dew’, Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To The Siren’ and Dylan’s ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’. ‘Win My Train Fair Home (If I Ever Get Lucky)’ was a moody swirl through Arthur Crudup’s original. An ambitious take on ‘Hey Joe’, the traditional tune Plant played live back in the Band Of Joy and made famous by Jimi Hendrix, took on in a very left field arrangement. Four original songs credited as group compositions were in line with the retro feel: ‘Red Dress’ was built around a Bo Diddley beat while “Dirt In A Hole’ had the edgy west coast feel of Arthur Lee’s Love. These songs represented Plant’s first song writing for four years. He had been reluctant to even add lyrics to ‘Life Begins Again’ a collaboration with the Afro Celt System that surfaced in early 2002 on their album Future In Time Vol 3.
Dreamland carried a similar organic quality to that of his last proper solo album Fate Of Nations, released in 1993. Even back then Plant was making music in his own rootsy taste with echoes of the blues tripping into the West Coast on his own ‘Promised Land’ or the now significant cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’. Dreamland carried on that tradition and was well received critically on both sides of the Atlantic. His vocal performance on the album led to two nominations in the annual Grammy awards, but the low key nature of the project was never going to stack up mega sales and without the draw of his former partner. It sold only moderately.
A t the time of its release Robert reflected on the course leading up to the album’s completion. “The Priory did create the right environment for this to happen. My ability and vocal cords are in good shape, but I haven’t felt substantially relevant as a lyricist in a long time. These are the songs I’ve always loved and I don’t see them as covers because I was around when they were being written. So I thought I’m dry as a bone lyrically, but these songs are still vibrant. There are probably three or four thousand albums in my house that could fuel another Dreamland but maybe I’ll write an album next time.”
The band supported the release of the album with a series of UK and US gigs with ex-Cast guitarist Skin replacing the departing Porl Thompson. A series of special guest support slots to The Who took him back to large arenas such as Madison Square Garden – which could be viewed as a quiet victory for his management. The band also appeared on VH1 ‘s high profile Storytellers series. Alongside material from Dreamland and the Zeppelin covers, Plant took the opportunity to revive some of his own past solo highlights including ‘Ship Of Fools’ and ‘Tall Cool One’.
In the autumn the band undertook a successful 13-date UK trek finishing at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. That day Plant combined an afternoon playback of the then work-in-progress Zep DVD with an excellent evening show in the capital. From London the tour moved to Scandinavia and ended in St Petersburg and Moscow where ‘Rock And Roll’ was performed for the first time since 1998.
Closer to home Plant became patron of Kevyn Gammond’s Kidderminster College fronted label MAS, donating an excellent studio version of The Priory Of Brion’s version of ‘Curse The Evil Woman’ for the label’s launch CD compilation.
He also put in a couple of studio cameo roles, adding harmonica to the track ‘The Lord Is My Shotgun’ for Primal Scream’s Evil Heat album and adding vocals to the track ‘Let The Boogie Woogie Roll’ for Jools Holland’s Small World Big Band Vol 2 set. He was also awarded a lifetime achievement in the Midlander Of The Year media awards staged in Birmingham.
Despite a fresh round of Zep reunion rumours, Plant resumed working with Strange Sensation in 2003.On December 31, 2002 BBC 2 aired their annual Jools Holland New Years Eve show which saw Robert performing with Solomon Burke and Tom Jones. In early January he travelled to Timbuktu to appear with Justin Adams at the Festival In The Desert in Essakane, Mali, performing a unique version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Back in the UK he undertook a round of promotional appearances to support the release of die single ‘Last Time I Saw Her’/'Song To The Siren’. This included p slots on BBC3′s Re-Covered and BBC2′s Live Floor Show. These I dates saw the addition of Billy Fuller on bass replacing the departing Charlie Jones to join Goldfrapp. Plant’s first proper gig of the year with Strange Sensation took them to Norway for an appearance at the Qle Blues Festival in Bergen.
In the summer of 2003 Plant and Strange Sensation were busy on the European festival circuit, and further studio recording nth this line-up was also on the cards. Commenting on his work n Strange Sensation Plant said: “There’s an energy about this music and a style that is worth pursuing and pushing a bit more. There’s a musical empathy here I haven’t felt for a long time.”
Following the high profile release of Led Zeppelin’s long awaited DVD and live album, Robert turned his attention to compiling his own solo retrospective anthology due for release in the fall of 2003. Away from music, Robert was delighted that Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, of whom he is a lifelong supporter, won promotion to the Premiership in May 2003.
Four years on from his curtailment of the Page/Plant collaboration, Robert has carved out another rich musical tapestry. Essentially looking back to look forward, he has succeeded in pleasing himself as well as his audience.
Vocally he is singing as well as ever, and is ambitious to test his vocal control with a variety of material, be it inspired versions songs he grew up with in the Sixties, experimental recordings in the desert or new music drawing on influences as diverse as The Electric Prunes and The Flaming Lips.
“I never want to be stereotyped as being relevant to one era or one type of music,” is how he summarised his continuing motivation recently. “The gift’s the gift… and you can keep it to yourself or you can go out into the world and use it.”
Dave Lewis – September 2003
First written for the book Celebration 2/ The Tight But Loose Files – Copyright Dave Lewis/Tight But Loose – not to be reproduced without prior permission.
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Here’s a couple of videos from the Strange Sensation era.
Robert Plant – Morning Dew
Robert Plant – Tin Pan Valley