Sixty Six to Timbuktu
First Appeared at The Music Box, December 2003, Volume 10, #12
Written by John Metzger
In the wake of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant continued to score hits, succeeding where many other frontmen-turned-solo performers have failed. Over the course of two decades and seven studio albums — eight, if one counts his ’80s EP with The Honeydrippers — his trademark howl and love of the blues continued to play a strong role in his songwriting, though he frequently ran away from his legacy and adopted whatever production style happened to be popular at the time he was recording. The result is that in retrospect many of his own works lack the timelessness of his forays with Led Zeppelin, if only because his solo tunes sometimes became overburdened with keyboards and drum beats that now seem out of place.
Featuring music that spans a time frame from Plant’s pre-Zeppelin days through a live performance captured earlier this year, the aptly titled 35-track, double disc Sixty Six to Timbuktu serves as both a greatest hits-style career retrospective (disc one) as well as a rarities collection (disc two). In its former capacity, it stumbles only slightly by completely ignoring his debut Pictures at Eleven and inexplicably excluding the ’80s staple In the Mood. One could quibble that the set pays far too much attention to Plant’s 1993 outing Fate of Nations, but the fact of the matter is that songs such as 29 Palms and Calling to You stand the test of time better than the cluttered arrangements of Tie Dye on the Highway, Tall Cool One, and Heaven Knows. Other gems include interpretations of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren and Jesse Colin Young’s Darkness, Darkness (both from last year’s Dreamland), The Honeydrippers’ rendition of Sea of Love (a vintage R&B tune popularized by Phil Phillips), and the lovely ’88 hit Ship of Fools, none of which try to force the music to be something that it isn’t just for the sake of selling albums or experimenting with new technology.
As for the rarities portion of Sixty Six to Timbuktu, it collects everything from long forgotten, early singles and demos to b-sides, side projects, and movie soundtrack material. Although his cover of Charlie Rich’s Philadelphia Baby is routine rockabilly and his partnership with Robin George on Red for Danger is virtually unlistenable, the bulk of the material is actually much better than the typical aggregation of odds and ends. Both Hey Joe and For What It’s Worth, recorded as demos in 1967 with Band of Joy, are stuffed full of blazing psychedelic blues, powered by the bashing and crashing of John Bonham. Elsewhere, the ghost of Robert Johnson haunts the back roads of 21 Years; Plant’s perfect moan lends a raw edginess that lifts the slow-burn of Operator as well as the thunderous Road to the Sun; Arthur Alexander’s If It’s Really Got to Be This Way, with its country twang and pedal steel bliss, sounds closer to the Rolling Stones than Led Zeppelin; and the world beats and organic grooves that fill his collaboration with Afro Celt Soundsystem (Life Begin Again) as well as a recent concert cut (Win My Train Fare Home) prove that even after all these years, Plant still has an awful lot to contribute to his legacy.
Sixty Six to Timbuktu is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box