October 17, 2012

Rock Over Boston At The Movies: Led Zeppelin

In a world where bands of Led Zeppelin's stature are constantly coming up with ways to take more of our money, there's been remarkably little cashing in by the arguable kings of the dinosaur band jungle. Hell, it wasn't until 1999 that they even issued their first best-of, the two-part Early Days and Latter Days collections. That great restraint has helped solidify Zeppelin's monolithic status among their peers - their 8 core studio albums are a tight, consistent, rock-solid body of work (let's spot them In Through The Out Door, okay?) without many peers.

Fans have been historically under-served, however, in good documentation of the band's formidable live act. The Song Remains The Same was all we had for the longest time and, as any longtime fan and collector of illicit recordings could tell you, it was an inadequate representation of their stage power. It has its high points for sure - "No Quarter" and "Since I've Been Loving You" are my personal highlights - but for most of it, the band sounds tired and bloated. Not their best night.

The dam finally broke when they released the revelatory BBC Sessions in 1997, which finally gave us an idea of what they were capable of. But it was 2003's DVD set that was the true mind-blower. The first disc's 1970 set at the Royal Albert Hall presented us with a huge, uncompromising display of youth, power, and enough amphetamine-driven energy to kill 10 Tour de France champions.

So here we are then with what is only their third live collection in their 43 year career. A collection that, though inevitable, still took 5 years to release. Celebration Day captures the band's 2007 reunion performance in tribute of the late Atlantic Records svengali Ahmet Ertegun (which benefited an educational foundation in his name) with the late John Bonham's son Jason on drums. The lottery for the coveted one-night-only full concert set tickets fed anticipation that would be a challenge to meet, especially given the band's spotty reunion history. Horrible-to-disastrous short reunion sets in 1985 (at Live Aid, no less) and 1988 (at Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary event) seemed to put the band off of reunions for good, despite the much more successful Plant and Page collaborations in the 90's.

I was not a successful ticket-lottery winner, and Clicky Clicky HQ was apparently unable to secure press credentials, so we're making do with Celebration Day, a film that blows by the worries and exceeds all anticipations and is worthy of the band's small live catalog. The dynamic is different, for sure. The band may have needed to work harder than ever - there's no coasting on the cocksure invincible attitude of their youth, and you find yourself rooting for them in places - will Plant hit that note? can Page still dazzle? will Jason Bonham deliver? Yes, yes, and yes. It isn't long before you forget that construct, though and realize that, damn, this is simply a great Led Zeppelin concert. The concert is presented here in its entirety, with what we're told is a minimum of sweetening (and a listen to audience recordings and myriad YouTube clips pretty much bears this out), and a stage-eye view of the band. Crowd shots are scene setting - most of the time, we're in the band's space. Seeing their interactions and musical in-jokes and Jimmy Page's foot on the wah-wah pedal and John Paul Jones' foot on his bass pedals when he does double-duty on the keyboards.

The performances are solid-to-incendiary, the middle third in particular. "In My Time Of Dying" warms things up after the band works off their early jitters, the never before performed "For Your Life" really loosens them up, and "Trampled Underfoot" has the band firing on all cylinders. They stumble slightly in "Dazed and Confused" - there seems to be a missed cue (and possibly some editing) in there somewhere, but all is forgiven when Page takes out that bow and you're 15 again.

And no one's having more fun here than Jason Bonham. A solid, heavy-hitter like his dad, Bonham has flashes of that subtle looseness that helped give Zeppelin their swagger. He isn't quite as fluid as his father, but he's in the neighborhood. It's fun to watch the his elder bandmates beam at him throughout with obvious affection.

There are limited theatrical screenings on Wednesday and Thursday of this week (see the embedded doohickey for details) and, as fun as it is to see it on the big screen without the distractions of your living room, choose your theater wisely. The sound system at my screening was at was not up to the task of reproducing rock music - particularly the bass. Whenever John Paul Jones' bass was featured, like the beginning of "Dazed..." and in "Ramble On," it sounded slightly like those shredding videos until the rest of the band came in. I'm dying to see the Blu-Ray and hear the vinyl coming on November 19th and December 11th respectively.

I had been talking with friends lately how unlikely it is that this collection will ever be anyone's go-to listen when they want to hear live Zeppelin. Celebration Day proved me wrong. It's a fine new edition to the catalog.

Now. How about, say, Long Beach '75 next?

-Michael Piantigini

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