Wednesday, June 3, 2020

War/Peace: The Warrior’s Code

I suspect that many of you who read this blog also attend live music performances—or at least, you did before that stopped being a thing (temporarily, I hope). Musicians have been trying different ways to get live music out to their fans, some for free, some charging, some seeking “tips,” and others seeking charitable donations, while some are trying to use Patreon or other similar subscription type programs to try to partially replace the revenue lost from cancelled tours. I think that it is pretty well known that these days, most musicians make the bulk of their living from touring and merch, and not so much from streaming and music sales.

Since the pandemic closed most venues, I’ve watched some of my favorite musicians from the comfort of my house—Richard Thompson, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Dan Bern, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, as well as her fellow Native Daughters, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, Ben Nichols of Lucero, Jeff Tweedy, Raul Malo, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Indigo Girls, and I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Most of these performances have come from the performers’ homes (or, at least where they are sheltering), except for an Isbell/Shires album release show from the stage of an empty Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville. These performances aren’t the same as being at a live show, but on the other hand, they are also more intimate—as one friend mentioned to me after we separately watched Richard Thompson, her husband was excited to be able to see the master’s hands close up while he played the guitar.

Last Friday, I watched most of an unusual performance—Dropkick Murphys, a band that is closely associated with the Boston Red Sox (they even were given World Series rings by the team one year), playing live on the field at an empty Fenway Park, with the band members all more than the now traditional six feet apart. The concert was organized to promote a number of charitable organizations, which is common for the band. For nearly two hours, the band ripped it up with their trademark Celtic flavored punk, and they were amazing. It wasn’t the same as when I saw them live at Warped Tour 15 years ago, but then again, what is? I had to reluctantly step away after two hours for a virtual college reunion Zoom session, but the next day, I found the video, and watched the end, when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the giant video screen in centerfield and performed two songs with DKM—one of theirs (“Rose Tattoo,”) and one of his, “American Land,” an appropriate anthem for our times, with its message of an America made up of immigrants and people of all races. Remarkably, considering the logistics, the entire concert sounded great, and I give much credit to whoever did the sound.

One of the songs that they played that night was “The Warrior’s Code,” which technically isn’t about war, but about a boxer, "Irish" Micky Ward. But since boxing and war often use each other’s metaphors and terminology, I’m OK with this. Also, back in 2016, I wrote about a different DKM song, a cover of “Fields of Athenry,” which is about World War I (and it is far from the only song by the band that references actual war, for example “The Fighting 69th” (Civil War) and “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye” (anti-war song written in Ireland in 1867), all of which were played at Fenway, along with a cover of The Standells' “Dirty Water,” which has nothing to do with war, but which I wrote about, here.)

The video of the show is still available here, among other places, so check it out, and send a few bucks to the charities.

Monday, June 1, 2020


It's funny, I had never really quite appreciated this song to have actually been about a battle or, indeed, warfare at all. It had always just been a joyous cascade of sounds: the tinkling mandolin and the soaring vocal interplay between Plant and Denny, with the lyrics never quite imprinting. Apart, of course, from the repeated refrain, Bring it back, bring it back........


So what was that all about, then? Examination of the lyric, and, contrary to my initial thought, sure, all the words are there, indelibly printed on my psyche, an automatic tele-prompter lying dormant and awaiting just this moment. Tolkeinesque nonsense about elves and faeries, as the naysayers put it, or, alternatively, a mystical celtic mantra. Strangely, as the sheer ubiquity of the song's parent album and the deconstructions of the might of Zeppelin accrue, this is actually a song, perhaps their only song, that has grown in stature. It seems actually to fit better with the current manifestation of a grizzled Robert Plant, now a sage like figure himself, akin to the wizard on the album cover all those years ago. Add the mythology of the doomed, and thus ageless, Sandy Denny and you have it. Together with the fact that the folkier aspects of the band have tended to last better than the more overtly metallic.

Almost by accident did the song arrive, with Jimmy Page picking up and playing with the mandolin belonging to bassist and keyboards man, John Paul Jones, an instrument he claims never to have earlier tried to play. Robert Plant then instinctively started wordlessly crooning along. With the feel of an old english, or probably welsh, folk song, Plant felt there needed to be a call and response aspect, with who better to fulfil that than Denny, erstwhile singer of Fairport Convention, with whom Zeppelin had shared the bill at Bath's 1970 Festival of Blues and Progressive Music. Plant had long associations with the band and its members, particularly Dave Pegg, both on the 1960s Birmingham pub circuit together. Denny willingly agreed, becoming the only ever featured guest musician on any of their output, gifted also with a (5th) symbol, to complement the four of the band that made up the official "title" of their 4th release.

After the twin behemoths of Black Dog and Rock'n'Roll pour out of the speakers, Evermore then becomes a mercurial palate cleanser, a consummate contrast and perhaps the only song that could then beckon in the majesty of Stairway to Heaven. (Yes, I did say majesty; I know it is de rigeur to sneer at it now, but, hell, c'mon, if you were 14 in 1971!) Call me an old fart, please do, but side 1, Led Zep 4, is about as astonishing a side of vinyl as ever made. Side 2, less so, but nonetheless.

Jones & Bonham

Denny never managed to reprise the studio recordings in a live setting, more is the pity. Zeppelin did play it live, with her parts sung by Jones and drummer, John Bonham. It wasn't as if he had anything (much) else to do in that number. Denny died in 1978 and Zeppelin dissolved, give or take the occasional reunion concert, a couple of years later. But, thankfully, it is the Plant/Fairport relationship that has gifted the song a greater life. He is a regular guest at their annual Cropredy festival, and has reprised this song in that setting, reminding the crowd as much of the Denny legacy as his own. This clip is with Kristina Donohue, daughter of sometime Fairport guitarist, Jerry.

To be fair, there was also an earlier and  glorious version on the semi-acoustic and middle east orchestral Page/Plant duet project, No Quarter, featuring the Indian singer, Najma Akhtar, whose stylistic traits give a whole different slant to it.


Finally, with Plant constantly redefining and reinventing himself across a number of styles, his occasional musical partnership with country star Alison Krauss proved another opportunity to revisit the song. (Astonishingly, in the same year as the Fairport version, 2008.) Having seen his latest band, Saving Grace, play live, in Birmingham's Town Hall venue towards the end of last year, I can state that it would fit well within their format. However, give or take a nod to the "original" of In My Time of Dying, there was no room for Zeppelin in this iteration of Plant's ever changing moods. Or not yet......

Get it!