Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day

So there goes Robert Plant last month, dangling the carrot in front of us again, doing an about-face from his assumed strict no-go stance and indicating on an Australian TV show that he’d be open to a Led Zeppelin reunion tour next year. It’s become a burlesque routine, this talk of a Zeppelin roadshow. They tease, titillate and suggest, but never quite commit to the full monty. This time I guess it’s John Paul Jones’ turn to come up with a reason why he won’t do it. Or… maybe they finally will. Can you even imagine what the ticket prices would be? Sheesh…

But I’ll be honest: I’d have to see it, one way or another. So will you, I’m guessing. I mean, I know a few folks who claim to despise Zeppelin and will ridicule the rest of us for giving a damn about those sorry old geezers, but I say screw ‘em! Let ‘em be miserable and bitter while we’re spending a thousand dollars apiece to have our faces rocked off in some soulless basketball arena! It’s fucking Led Zeppelin!

Well, three out of four of ‘em, anyway. Actually, make that three and a half out of four, ‘cause there’s no more appropriate man to fill the late John Bonham’s seat behind the drum set than his boy Jason. And that’s not simply due to the bloodline. This dude has listened to and played along with the entire Led Zep catalog for so long, studying and practicing and basically thoroughly absorbing his old man’s style, that it’s an integral part of him now. And he’s young enough that he has the stamina and honest enthusiasm to keep up, and go beyond, and push his father’s onetime cohorts to levels that an affable chub like, say, Phil Collins, talented though he may be, could never do.

That’s one of many impressions I’m struck by while watching Celebration Day, the film of Led Zeppelin’s 2007 concert in London honoring the memory of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. I’ve enjoyed it several times since its release in November, most recently one night last month accompanying a first-time viewer. If you’re a Zeppelin devotee, no doubt you already have it, possibly in multiple formats, just because. If you think you’re a fan, but haven’t picked this up yet, take my word for it: do it. It’s that awesome. It’s probably the best Zeppelin concert recording I’ve ever seen or heard, although some footage on that Led Zeppelin double DVD from ten years ago is pretty amazing, too. But all that stuff’s from the ‘70s when they were struttin’ around shirtless everywhere, stuffing sharks up the snatches of nubile groupies, bigger than the biggest band on Earth could ever imagine being. Now they’re old men, and even Jason’s 14 years older than his pop was when he choked on his last vodka breakfast in 1980, a few months after the band played what would be their final show with him.

So that, along with the indisputable fact that their two prior stabs at reunion sets (Live Aid in 1985, with drummers Collins and Tony Thompson, and Atlantic’s 40th Anniversary concert in ’88, with Jason) were abysmal, makes this full performance at London’s 02 Arena, all the more impressive. With every reason to believe it could be their last, they wanted it to be their best show ever, and they worked hard in advance to make sure it was. It’s obvious. You can tell immediately.

They start off boldly, album one/side one/song one, the first familiar lighting jolts of “Good Times, Bad Times” jabbing the rising roar of the fans like the world’s most powerful defibrillator, and yeah, you can feel your own heart jump a step. Then those same dominating chords slam down again, dwarfing all around them, the ticks of the high-hat doubling in tempo, building in anticipation. Twice more with the two crushing back-to-back blows, as the beats start to dance back and forth in the shadows, and finally two more mortar blasts from Page and Bonham before the drums plunge into full force, Jones’ meticulous basslines flow flawlessly in the undercurrent, Page starts riffing away like nobody else, Plant’s hurling us back to the days of his youth, and brother, there is no doubt this beast has awoken and taken flight.

“Ramble On” and “Black Dog” follow, two more ubiquitous FM hits we’ve all heard far too many times, and yet… there’s something about witnessing them onstage once more at this stage in their lives, listening to them conjure these sounds with such authority, as if to reaffirm their reputation after so many years have passed – it’s genuinely thrilling.

Plant seems to be holding back on these first few songs; whether deliberately guarding his voice or it just hasn’t relaxed yet, you get the impression that his pipes aren’t able to soar to heights once reached in days of old, you know, when magic filled the air. I realize, of course, that he’s never stopped recording or touring with different bands, but if you’ve seen any of those you know he doesn’t sing these songs the way he used to. But then there’s a point about two-thirds of the way into “Black Dog” when all that restraint comes untied and he starts wailing and letting loose like the 30+ year gap and the half-assed quickie reunions in the ‘80s never happened. The whole band, in fact, locks into this instinctive, brakes-off, go-for-it chemistry, so completely full of control and rediscovery. From that point forward, it’s definitely there, and also a bit bewildering to behold.

And then they forego, somewhat, the surefire hits and dive into the deeper recesses of their catalog. Now, I realize that by this point, nearly every Led Zeppelin song is immediately familiar to anyone of a certain age, but still, not knowing the set list in advance, the first time I saw Celebration Day in the theater, as Jimmy Page begins to slide out those slow, slithering, ominous opening notes of “In My Time of Dying,” I kinda felt a rush come over me, a sense of both surprise and relief. “Thank God,” I thought, “they didn’t just do a ‘best of’ show!” But then, they never did.

They draw from each of their studio albums except In Through the Out Door, the overlooking of which is probably for the best. “For Your Life,” one of those tangled, juddering cycles of push-pull-and-release that filled 1976’s Presence, gets its first public performance, and as a lesson in the dizzying power of rhythm and repetitive guitar riffage, it’s jaw dropping. “The Song Remains the Same” is probably my favorite Led Zep song – like so many of their compositions, it’s far more intricate and complicated than it may sound, and it’s also a total adrenaline rush, like dashing to the brink of a cliff, only to be yanked back at the last second, only to be jettisoned off the edge again. They nail it here. I don’t know why I didn’t expect “Trampled Under Foot,” but it’s a fun, pseudo-funky song and gives Jones a much deserved spotlight on the electric organ; his over-the-waterfall breakdown at the close of the cranium-melting instrumental midsection makes me smile every time. Of course, it’s “No Quarter” where he really shines, and it’s just as spooky as ever.

Jones is the steady professional onstage during the show, eschewing the spotlight, rarely bringing attention to how necessary he is. I can’t tell if Plant is enjoying himself or not. Age has certainly grizzled his rock god looks, but his confidence and voice are undiminished. There’s no question that Page is on top of the world – the grin on that funny, rubbery, elfin face of his gives it away, not to mention the ferocity with which he dominates his guitars. Twisting notes in new directions, piloting solos across uncharted star systems, he never plays a song the exact same way, but it always sounds perfect even if it initially strikes you as “off.” And Jason Bonham’s simply having the greatest day of his life.

It’s astounding that they sound so tight after not performing together for so long. It’s even more astounding that it’s just the four of them – you really have to keep reminding yourself of that while you’re experiencing this. Usually when dinosaurs like Zeppelin reach this stage in their existence, or when they come out of retirement after an extended dormancy, they pad the lineup with extra players, either as a safety net or because they’re not confident they can do their recordings justice. There’s none of that here. One guitar, one bass (or keyboard on select songs), one drum kit and one voice. They tear into it like a four-headed monster and they sound like the mightiest band that’s ever walked the earth.

The biggies come out again toward the end. “Stairway to Heaven” is the only time Plant seems like he’d rather be back in Texas boinking Patty Griffin, but then a few songs later, “Kashmir” is altogether stunning. “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” are some of the other givens, and if you guessed they’d reach the big finale with “Rock and Roll,” you get a cupcake and gold star.

There are several similar configurations of this set. The one I have is the foldout digipak with two audio CDs, a DVD of the concert and a second DVD of the dress rehearsal several days prior to the show. I thought the latter’d be sorta cool but it’s just a one-camera long-shot, as if we’re the only ones in the audience but we’re stuck on the 25th row. Given the lively excitement of the actual concert footage, it’s sorta dull and pointless. But then, most bonus DVD features qualify as such.

During the big news conference upon Celebration Day’s release, after being asked about future tour possibilities yet again, an obviously irritated Plant made the point that Led Zeppelin were never this good at every show, as bootleg footage and recordings will attest. In fact, there were nights when they just didn’t have it together at all. So a worldwide tour, the group playing night after night, multiple shows in many cities, may very well not turn out to be as unbelievably fantastic as you think it will be. It will invite nitpicking and criticism, and there will no doubt be some fans who are disappointed. Part of me doesn’t even want them to consider it, preferring they bid farewell with this proud zenith.

But if they do it, I have to see it. That’s all there is to it.

There’ve been thousands of pale imitators. There will never be another band like this.

Led Zeppelin
Celebration Day
[Swan Song/Atlantic]