Friday, October 19, 2012

Fathers of the Four Winds, Fill My Sails, Across the Sea of Years

Led Zeppelin. No other band in all the history of music has had such an effect on my life or inspired me more deeply. They literally changed my life.

When I was young, I was a late-bloomer when it came to appreciating music. I was aware of what was popular when I was growing up, but none of it really sang to me, hit me on a deep level, made me want to seek out more. I remember being at my first job and the radio we had on the table would usually be set to the new rock station (this was in the early 90s) and so our background noise was Nirvana and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Those are all fine bands and they have their place and I like them now, but they didn't hit me where it matters. I was kind of immune to the power of music.

Then, one evening when I was working alone (I was about 17 at the time), I changed the station, came across a classic rock channel. Something came out of that radio that sounded different, made me stop what I was doing and just listen. The drums were different, the whole arrangement sounded more unpredictable and interesting than what I was used to, and the voice doing the singing seemed to come from somewhere uninhibited, primal, and free, as if the singer was projecting not from his throat but from the core of his being and didn't care what anyone thought. This music was pure, and it had me hooked.
I learned that this was Led Zeppelin, and I had to hear more. That song, I now know, was "Fool in the Rain," but at the time I didn't know the title. But I had to find it. I went to the record store, looked through the Zeppelin tapes. The thing about Robert Plant's vocals is that until you're used to them, it can somethimes be hard to understand what he's saying. "Fool in the Rain" contains the line, "Light of the love that I've found," but all I could make out was "something-something-Love-something-something" So...I grabbed the cassette that had a song called "Whole Lotta Love" on it, thinking it might be the one. It wasn't, but what I had stumbled onto was something far more than I expected. That was LED ZEPPELIN II, one of the greatest albums in the history of rock.

That was it. Everything changed. Music became an important part of my life. With Zeppelin, I learned to appreciate the blues that had inspired them and also began to branch out into exploring other bands, other genres of music, and the whole world of sound that exists out there. But Zeppelin will always hold a special position in my heart for giving me the gift of music. I bought every one of their albums, and their concerts on VHS, and started exploring the solo albums of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. I even bought a guitar and learned to play it, with Jimmy Page as my primary inspiration. I played for a few years, never got terribly good, and eventually stopped, but it was a memorable experience and I'm glad I did it.

Of course, I never got to see Led Zeppelin in their prime, as drummer John Bonham died and the band broke up more than a decade before I found their music, but I have been lucky enough to see two of their members perform live. I went twice when Page and Plant toured together in the mid 90s, and later saw Jimmy Page when he temporarily joined the Black Crowes. That was an incredible night and the Crowes' drummer, Steve Gorman, did some things on Zeppelin songs that I didn't think anyone but the late John Bonham could do.

Flash forward to 2007: the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, along with Jason Bonham, son of the original drummer, reunited for a full 2 hour concert at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute in London. After hearing how well they performed at that show, I waited and waited for news of the concert coming out on CD or DVD or anything. Finally, just this week, five years after that reunion, a concert film called "Celebration Day" was shown in theatres for two days only in advance of next month's long-awaited DVD and CD release.
Of course I went! It was last night and it was magnificent.

Here is my review of the film:

What I saw last night was three old men becoming young again for two hours. While they are not, and cannot be, what they were in 1975, they performed far beyond what they should be capable of, considering how much time has gone by. I was impressed from start to finish, but especially from about the fourth song up until the very end of the concert.
The first three songs were good, but when "In My Time of Dying" began, everything really kicked in. Page's slide guitar was amazing, and Jason Bonham really started to impress me (that song is always a test of drumming ability as far as I'm concerned).
The first ever live performance of "For Your Life" blew me away and it suddenly seemed as if Robert Plant had forgotten that he was 60 years old. The power of his voice, at that age, is astounding.
"Trampled Underfoot" has never been one of my favorite Zep songs, but tonight it was. That was a masterful performance of the song and John Paul Jones really shined (as he did also on "No Quarter").
"Kashmir" which is one of my favorite Zeppelin songs, was perfect, and Plant's voice impressed me again, especially on that one long howl that he managed to pull off only slightly shorter than in the studio version of 37 years ago.
Considering how rare a Zeppelin show with all three surviving members is, I couldn't have asked for anything better. They played a total of 16 songs. Some were better than others, but none were disappointing. If this turns out to be their last time, what a way to end it!

As for my thoughts on the individuals:
Jason Bonham: Nobody can fill his father's shoes, and I'm glad he didn't go too far in trying to. He solidly backed up his three uncles and did as good a job as anyone could have asked of him. I have no complaints about him at all.
John Paul Jones:  I've come to appreciate him more over the years as I've learned more about the importance of bass and other instruments, and I've realized that he was the glue that held the band's sound together. He was great tonight on both bass and keyboards. And apparently he didn't get the memo about being old either. He looks about 20 years younger than he is.
Jimmy Page: His playing has not been affected by the years at all. His solos and riffs are right on the money. He might look like Yoda now, but he sounds like he did when he was thirty. Anyone who was seeing him for the first time might think he was struggling because of those faces he makes, but that's just how he plays and he's made the same experessions for the past 40 years. He was everything I hoped for and more.
Robert Plant: Wow! Before seeing this, I was a little worried about whether he could keep up with singing those old songs, as his voice has aged. He's adjusted how he uses it on his own recordings in recent years, but those songs of his are much different than the old Zep songs. No, he could not hit notes like he did in his 20s, but he knew exactly when he could gather that power and blast a hole in the walls, and he did! Other times, he used the texture his voice has gained with age and experience to make the songs effective in other ways. It didn't bother me that he shortened a line here or there to make it come out easier. It's like a pitcher who can't always throw a fastball learning a changeup to keep winning. But the old power was still there at a few pivotal moments and I could feel it shake the world like few singers have ever been able to.

When Plant sang the lyrics from Kashmir, "I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been," my eyes filled with tears because I felt like those words were about him and about his bandmates, as they seemed to have reached through time and space and regained the power and ability they had when they were the greatest band in the world.
That concert is a testament to the power of music and how it makes the old young again and how true talent cannot completely dissipate with time.
And one final thing. It was reinforced in my mind yet again how unique Led Zeppelin's sound was. None of the songs they played sound dated. Almost all of them could pop up on the radio today and someone out there might think it was something new. They never followed trends, but always put a timeless quality in their songs that set them apart from almost all other acts. That was demonstrated by the audience in the theatre with me tonight. There were people in their 60s, children of 10, and every age in between. I was happy to be a part of that audience tonight. I normally hate when people clap and cheer in a movie theatre since, unlike a stage show, the people you're applauding can't hear you. But tonight, I clapped as loud as anybody. I couldn't help it.

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