The pagan gods of old return to Midgard for one last conquest. Their victory is nothing less than completely decisive.
Zeppelin. When we talk about a British four-piece by the name of Led Zeppelin, we are not broaching discussion about just any ordinary rock band, no flavor-of-the month or substance-less hype recipient. We are talking about one of the most successful, one of the most beloved, and one of the absolute greatest acts in rock ‘n’ roll. This is a group whose influence is incalculable, and whose riffs and drum beats are forever etched into the collective memory of three generations of music lovers. Browse your record collection or your MP3 playlist, and I’d wager Led Zeppelin IV is on it, beckoning you to put it on and crank up “Black Dog” to full volume this very instant. After the early critical dismissal, the punk wars, and a rash of overconcerned parents believing hogwash about backwards messages being sneaked onto LPs, history has proven Zeppelin to be the victor. The output Zeppelin produced between 1968 and its 1980 disbandment after the death of drummer John Bonham is material few come close to touching -- I would argue to my last breath that in all of rock’s half-century history, only the Beatles outplace Zep in the genre’s hierarchy.
So it was no small matter when Led Zeppelin announced in 2007 that it was playing a one-night-only reunion gig at London’s 02 Arena as part of a tribute to late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. One million people signed up to enter a raffle to win the chance to purchase from about 20,000 available tickets to the performance (I readily admit I was one of them; I didn’t get a ticket). Pete freaking Townshend pulled out of the show once he found out Zeppelin was on the bill, figuring (truthfully, it must be said) that the event didn’t need little old him to help raise money for Ertegun’s education charity. Certainly the chance to see Zep at all, in any form -- legendary live reputation or not -- was enticement enough to whip up press and fan anticipation to astronomical levels that year. But there’s no mistake that there was certainly lots of hope in the air, that unlike Live Aid or John Paul Jones’ ignominious exclusion from the mid-‘90s Jimmy Page/Robert Plant collaborations, this might be a wondrous reformation truly worthy of the band’s hallowed stature.
Apparently, it was. The word coming out of the concert was that it was all enthusiastic, even euphoric. As the press told it, the temporarily-reconfigured union of Page, Plant and Jones (with Jason Bonham filling in for his late father) exorcised the demons of fumbled reunions past by delivering one of the grandest performances heard in a long time. If only the rest of us could’ve been there! But no, Page’s hopes for a full-scale reunion tour and the possibility of new music petered out because of Plant’s reticence, and talk of commercially releasing the O2 show seemed to lead nowhere.
That is, until now. Following a limited theatrical run in last month, Celebration Day (as the concert has been labeled) is now available for wide public consumption in various configurations, most of which contain both the live album and the performance film. Spend your money how you like, but I think it’s folly if you opt for the CD-only edition. No audio-only edition will fully convey the experience like the film does -- it’s one thing to hear Zeppelin take the stage; it’s quite another entirely to see these wizened old rockers walk out amid the bright lights, pick up their instruments and come together for one last hurrah.
Despite the hoopla surrounding this whole undertaking, the Celebration Day film begins in a rather Spartan fashion. As the barest of credits roll out, snippets of news bulletins about past Zep triumphs -- the only fanfare the group gets -- are played to the packed house, the cheers growing in volume in anticipation of the Last Great Classic Rock Reunion. Going into this, I tempered my expectations; there have been numerous reunion concerts by acts whose primes were decades past, and certainly not all of them have been good. There was still the chance that all the goodwill afforded to the concert was wishfullness run amok, the willing of an okay performance into something greater to live up to the legend that night represented. No, I said to myself, I would observe the footage as clinically as possible, never letting my excitement over witnessing the Zeppelin reunion overcome my critical impulses.
But once the very first DUN-DUN of “Good Times Bad Times” bellowed through my headphones, a smile instantly -- involuntarily -- flashed across my face. Just two chords and I instantly knew this show would not disappoint. The smile remained for far longer than that declarative introduction, as an older yet no less hardy Zep set out to remind the audience why the 1970s belonged to Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham. Not content to simply plug in and play for a good cause, the band came out ready to win over any doubters that may have been lurking about. The rehearsals leading up to O2 proved fruitful: from that first song, Zeppelin is tight, assured, and, most importantly, HEAVY. No one relishes this moment as much as Page, who even as he coolly throws out rock star shapes he constantly wears the beaming smile of a man delighted to have been granted his fondest wish.
As much as Zeppelin is an entity that Page created and curates, it is Plant who rules Celebration Day. Always reluctant to participate in any potential Zep reunions, here Plant shows no misgivings. He is simply magnificent, staking his claim of the stage not as the hippie prince of his youth, but as a steely-eyed king primed for battle -- it’s not for nothing that he now looks for all the world like Bernard Hill’s Théoden from the Lord of the Rings films. Percy brandishes his mic stand as it if is a weapon as he shakes and sways and tosses his golden mane back, the old moves still working wonders due to his effortless, almost ingrained command of the frontman role. When Plant points and exclaims “I just want to have some fun!” in “In My Time of Dying”, it comes across like a threat -- he’s going to do what he wants and you can’t stop him. Yet when he talks to the audience, he’s beautifully humble, speaking to them as if they are old friends he is glad to be in the company of once more.
The performance is incredible all throughout. The band members are compelling enough that even when the camera isn’t guiding the eye to where it wants to look, the Zep men draw the focus onto themselves (if only the lens stayed stationary more often; the rapid cuts are oftentimes needless fussing). Any flubbed notes (yes, they do occur -- listen to Page’s slip-ups in “Black Dog”) are overcome by the sheer excitement the band generates, a level which subsides only a little -- never dissipating -- to benefit the less-bombastic segments. Any doubts that may arise as to what limits Plant’s voice might face (song keys were indeed transposed to accommodate the natural lowering of Plant’s range with age) should be put to rest upon hearing how he delivers at several pivotal moments -- the crescendoing cry at the end of the breakdown in “Black Dog”, his forceful screams in “Kashmir”, and the full-on intensity of his “Dazed and Confused”.
Zeppelin never slacks, nor is it ever cheap or pandering. The AOR classics and choice albums cuts (which, to be fair, are AOR classics still) are balanced out, and though Plant’s refusal to play the heavier end of Zeppelin’s metal output resulted in the exclusion of “Immigrant Song” and “Achilles Last Stand” from the setlist, the group ensures they are never missed. When the seemingly mandatory “Stairway to Heaven” finally shows up two-thirds of the way into the main set (by Plant’s insistence, who agreed to sing the song only if it was treated like any other), it is in a soothing, restrained rendition, its beauty emphasized over its power.
Celebration Day, it pleases me to say, is a resounding triumph. In a two-hour span, Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham in no uncertain terms reaffirm why Led Zeppelin deserves its iconic status. They nail it so thoroughly that the encores of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll” are what encores are supposed to be: affirmations that the headlining act utterly killed it, so here’s a little extra for the road. No, the concert’s climax, and its true ending point, is “Kashmir”, that most awesome of rock epics, a song so mighty it even awed critics during the advent of punk into grudging respect. When it enters its last two-minute stretch, the entire night -- indeed, nearly 30 years of anticipation -- culminates as Plant screams with all his might, Jones’ keyboards continuously swell to limitless heights, and Bonham channels his father’s prodigious spirit in drum fills so thunderous they stun me into silence. At that very moment “Kashmir” sounds like nothing less than the greatest goddamn song ever made.
Celebration Day leaves no doubt that on that evening in December 2007, in front of thousands of fans and several of their contemporaries and followers, that the remaining trio and the younger Bonham were the coolest people in the building, if not on the entire planet. Though we will never again see Zeppelin take stage, let’s hope for the sake of rock ‘n’ roll that we won’t be deprived of their like in the future. If indeed this is to be the last time Zeppelin graces us with its presence, it can’t be too soon until new gods of equal eminence arrive to replace the old.