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Boyle found it amusing that, after the release of Now and Zen, many reviewers pegged him as a talented Jimmy Page disciple. "Before I joined up with Robert," he says, "I was playing jazz and funk and R&B, blues and even country-and-western." Everything but the high-octane bombast made famous by the British supergroup.
In fact, when he was recruited for Plant's band by his friend Chris Blackwell, who had already come aboard on drums, Boyle wasn't playing anything at all. "When I met Robert, I was working for a holiday company [British for "travel agency"]," Boyle says. "I was tired of bands at the time. Because, you know, when you're playing in pubs with small, struggling bands, the politics of trying to keep it together when people aren't happy with each other and it's hard to get gigs can get to be a bit much. And I had been doing that ever since I left school."
Needless to say, Boyle feels "very lucky" Plant pulled him out from behind a reservations terminal and gave him a job on the instrument so integrally associated with Plant's soaring vocals. Perhaps that's why he so sportingly tolerates the Pagey shadow that still cloaks his contributions.
"It's one of those things," he shrugs. "You're following in the footsteps of a rock 'n' roll legend, and you just have to deal with that. I feel good being a part of playing that music for a new generation. It's kind of like the legacy goes on. At the same time, I think I'm bringing something new to that sound."
THAT "SOMETHING NEW" is undoubtedly what Robert Plant was looking for when he drafted a bunch of unknowns to back him on the pivotal Now and Zen. With the one-time teen dream teetering on the precipice of his fortieth birthday, Plant knew he needed some young blood to update his trademark wanton wail for the late Eighties. "A lot of the secret to our chemistry has to do with the fact that we're all a good deal younger than he is," admits Boyle. (The oldest member of Plant's band is a decade younger than the singer.) "We haven't been out on the road for years and years like he has, so we're kind of fresh. And so we all enjoy sort of rejuvenating the old boy," he chuckles.
The disparity in age and experience between the band leader and his boys also plays a part in the heady mix of new and old influences that have given Plant's last two albums so much of their appeal. On Manic Nirvana, for example, the singer again experiments with sampling, a thoroughly modern technique most commonly associated with rap.
On his cover of the obscure early-Sixties Kenny Dino single "Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night," Plant samples the drum track off his own ancient copy of the 45--complete with the snaps, crackles and pops of the old disc. (The CD carries a unique apology for the "unavoidable" surface noise on the track.)
"The sampling is kind of a bow of the head to the modern black influence, you know, imitating what a lot of the rap guys do, but with a sense of humor," Boyle explains. "Phil Johnstone is kind of the prime mover on that stuff. But Robert comes up with a lot of his own ideas on it, too."
The backing quartet's relative youth also comes in handy, Boyle points out, in keeping Plant on track with the adolescent frustrations that the heavy-metal audience will always depend on his inimitable voice to vent. "You know, that whole angst-ridden teenager thing," Boyle shorthands.
If Plant's young pupils provide the input that keeps the old bloke in tune with the times, it's the homework their mentor assigns them that gives the records their roots. "Once in a while, he'll play us some old records to show us what kind of a sound he wants on a song," Boyle says. "For `Liar's Dance,' [a stark vocals-with-acoustic guitar arrangement], he had me listen to some Buffalo Springfield and a tune by Stephen Stills called `Black Queen.' It was a style of playing I really hadn't heard much."
Of course, with the band members all heading rapidly into their thirtysomething years, it might not be all that long before the generation gap closes. Boyle, a married man with a one-year-old son, already talks about missing his family on the road and "trying to get back some of that feeling I had when I was a kid" in his playing. And forget any ideas about Plant's new band trying to live up to the legendary hotel-room debauchery of his old outfit. You're just as unlikely to find Boyle and his buds committing some obscene act with a shark and a roomful of groupies as you are these days catching a potted Plant on-stage.
"We hardly even drink anymore," Boyle says. "We mostly just stay in our rooms and practice a lot." He sighs. "We're kind of boring, I guess!"
Robert Plant will perform at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum on Tuesday, August 7. Show time is 7:30 p.m.