Friday, December 14, 2012

Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day

I'm really into Led Zeppelin right now.

Like, REALLY into Led Zeppelin.

Maybe Jimmy Page cast a spell on me.

I've written about Zeppelin before. How I feel like they represent the best and the worst of 70's rock. I feel like much of their recorded live work is a little too indulgent for it's own good, while their studio work just defines the idea of a great hard rock band. I recently picked up the Led Zeppelin DVD, and it's a great set, with lots of great live footage, but it still has these moments when I find myself thinking "get back to the song." Yeah, I like a good long-form jam from time to time, and I can dig a focused drum solo, but I dunno.

When Led Zeppelin reunited (replacing fallen drummer John Bonham with his son, Jason) in 2007 to play one night at the O2 Arena in London, at a tribute concert for Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, twenty million people submitted for the lottery to get eighteen thousand tickets. Rumors abounded that this gig might be the first step to a full-out reunion tour of the world, but Zep fans sensed (rightly, as it turned out) that this might be it. The last chance to catch Led Zeppelin live, or even an only chance.

The word that came from London after that evening, from the lucky few that witnessed it, was that Zeppelin had managed the impossible. Especially after lackluster reunion appearances at Live Aid (with Phil Collins not quite making the grade on drums) and the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Jason Bonham had brought the magic back to the stage for a powerful two hour show.

Well, if this Celebration Day set is an accurate depiction of what happened that night, and nobody's saying it isn't, they did. I'm not going to say they were as good as they were in their heyday. I don't honestly know, this is the only full, beginning to end, Led Zeppelin show I've seen on video, and I've certainly never seen them in person.

What Celebration Day represents is a rock-solid performance that any band, especially one that hadn't played together for nineteen years, ought to be proud of. Yeah, there's down-tuning to accommodate Plant's voice...but Robert Plant was 59 years old when this show was performed. No, he can't hit those notes anymore, but neither can the majority of men in their 20's. He sounds great, honestly. I feel like his voice gets stronger during the show. The opening number, "Good Times Bad Times," worried me a bit, just because Jason Bonham was laying in a LOT of backing vocals (much more obviously than the recorded version). By the time they got to "Kashmir," near the end of the set, Plant was on fire.

Page is clearly VERY happy throughout the show, which makes sense, because I think he wanted this for a very long time. I'm sure he wanted more of it, too, but it wasn't to be (I'll get to that). His playing is solid, much better than the footage of the "heroin years" I've seen. That said...Page is a little sloppy. Not a criticism, at all, that's part of who Jimmy Page is, and how he plays the guitar. He's not Steve Vai, and never will be. He plays with feel, and the feeling you get is absolute joy to be on stage with Zeppelin again.

John Paul Jones, what can you say? "The quiet one." Here's were you really find the precision. I've heard reviews that comment that he looks "nervous." Yeah, guys, he always looked that way. Concentration, that's what I see. His playing is really immaculate, "Trampled Under Foot" is an absolute highlight, and undeniably driven by Jonesy. The guy is the secret weapon of the band's whole sound.

Young Mr. Bonham (a laugh in itself, the guy's 5 years older than me) acquits himself very well. I have read that he was very embarrassed by his performance at the Atlantic 40th Anniversary show, and had something to prove. He proved it, as far as I'm concerned.

It's just, hands down, a great two hours of rock on an epic scale. Maybe you don't like that. I do, so I'm kind of in heaven with it. There's nothing embarrassing about this performance, or the package

Really, my only question is; why did it take them five years to release it?

I have the four-disk CD/CD/Blu-Ray/DVD set. The audio version is on the two CDs. The concert film is on the Blu-Ray, and the special features are on the DVD. I have to admit, I felt the special features a bit lackluster. Basically it's a vintage news report (used in the intro of the concert), and then a collection of BBC reports about the concert. In addition we get rehearsal footage, which is essentially the whole show played on a soundstage somewhere for management and roadies, I'd guess. It's interesting, if not revelatory, in making clear how hard these guys worked to make sure this would not be another misfire.

*I will note that I stopped watching the rehearsal footage after a couple of songs, and have not revisited it yet. Maybe something cool and very different happens, but I would guess no.

As to criticisms? There are some songs I would've liked to hear, say, "Immigrant Song," but apparently Plant put the kibosh on anything that was too "metal." The rumor was that he didn't even want to play "Stairway to Heaven," but was talked into it. I think part of the real joy here is knowing that Plant was so reticent, and seeing how great he is. How engaged he is in the performance, and how engaging he is. I know he's past his prime, but he is a magnetic frontman.

As to the aftermath. I think that Plant was right to walk away from any further touring/recording. I know it was difficult for the other three, who apparently auditioned the likes of Myles Kennedy and Steven Tyler to step in. Still, I think Plant knew they had achieved something that night in the O2, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make it happen over and over again. That it was better to go out in triumph than to risk a slide into mediocrity, or worse. Plus, I just don't think his heart's in this kind of music anymore, what with his more folk-and-roots influenced recent work. God bless the man for sticking to his convictions and not taking the cash for something he, deep down, would've had to fake.

Honestly, the show happened, and I have this record of it, and that's enough.


Favorite Tracks:
  • For Your Life
  • Nobody's Fault But Mine
  • Kashmir
  • Whole Lotta' Love

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