What is it about Led Zeppelin that allows the group to endure more than two decades after its untimely break up? Is it the mystical (and mythical) aura that followed the band throughout its career? Is it the failure to reunite and engage in various reunion tours on a regular basis? Is it the majesty of Zeppelin's music? Or is it simply due to Zeppelin being that damn great? All of the above, with heavy emphasis on the last reason.
In the 20-plus years since drummer John Bonham's death, the surviving members of Zeppelin have rejected lucrative offers to reconvene, instead choosing to pursue various other interests. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have enjoyed numerous solo projects, as well as joining each other in 1994 for a celebration of Zep's legacy with the No Quarter concert CD. John Paul Jones, ever the anonymous member, retreated into the sanctity of production. Apart from an appearance at Live Aid in 1985 and a few special occasions, the three have steered away from capitalizing on the Zep trademark without the services of fallen comrade Bonham. As a result, fans have been left without much to look forward to in the form of new Zep-proper material. Until now . . .
The release of the three-CD package How the West Was Won should satiate every fan's appetite for years to come. Recorded on 25 June and 27 June 1972 at the Los Angeles Forum and Long Beach Arena respectively, these 18 tracks capture the true essence of the band in concert. While they were masters in the studio, Zep's forte was the live set, resplendent in musical exaggeration and overindulgence. With the exception of Live at Leeds-era Who, no band could challenge Zeppelin on stage. But where the Who represented ferocity, Zep embodied virtuosity, as performances ebbed and flowed with ethereal grandeur. Not to say the band could not harness the power of sheer brutality in its music, but Zep shows were different from anything else.
Disc one presents an interesting contrast to its two companion discs; its ten tracks are given fairly consistent treatment; no expansive jamming or exploration into parts unknown, merely solid renditions of songs that were to become classics. That said, the material highlights Zeppelin's musical dexterity; the power of "Immigrant Song" and "Heartbreaker" are deftly intertwined with the lush folksiness of "Going to California" and "That's the Way". Zeppelin's ability to shift gears is further accentuated as the group transitions from the smoldering blues of "Since I've Been Loving You" to the rollicking pace of "Bron-Yr-Aur-Stomp" with seemingly no effort. Even the timeless "Stairway to Heaven" merits praise, as Zep's signature tune flows beautifully on the strength of Plant's earnest vocals.
The second disc transports listeners directly to the eye of the Zeppelin storm as it kicks off with a twenty-five minute epic version of "Dazed and Confused". Including a medley comprised of "Walter's Walk" and "The Crunge", the time is well spent as it epitomizes the possibilities of Zeppelin's music on stage. It also demonstrates how a musical maelstrom headed in four separate directions could come together into something special. Jones's bass sets the foundation from which Page can experiment, while Plant loses himself in his own shrieks and howls, and Bonham dutifully follows. Bombastic and ponderous, but always mesmerizing, this type of song treatment was what made the Zeppelin concert experience so memorable.
In order to lend a semblance of balance to Disc two's four tracks, standard-length versions of "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Dancing Days" are included, only to be sandwiched by the 19-minute Bonham vehicle "Moby Dick". True to its title's inference, this is indeed a whale of a track, as Bonzo shows off his remarkable drumming skills. Close your eyes and concentrate for a moment as the deafening beat conjures the image of Bonham bludgeoning his kit. It is quite a vision.
If these two discs were not enough, a third rounds out the collection in resounding fashion. Beginning with 23 minutes of "Whole Lotta Love", the material again showcases Zeppelin's penchant for improvisation and creativity. Much like the treatment afforded "Dazed and Confused", Disc 3's opening salvo blends a medley of songs into one colossal fury. For the uninitiated, it is awe-inspiring; for Zep aficionados it is merely awesome. The subsequent three tracks are significantly shorter, but no less impressive. "Rock and Roll" finds Page dazzling the crowd with his guitar gymnastics, while "The Ocean" chugs forward with thudding precision. The disc closes with a nine-and-a-half-minute version of Willie Dixon's "Bring It on Home", complete with wailing harmonica. Lest anyone had forgotten, Zeppelin's original sound was grounded in Page's early Yardbirds-influenced Delta Blues sensibilities. It is a fitting track to end the show with.
So what is the ultimate value of How the West Was Won? Historically speaking, the three discs represent lightning captured in a bottle. Barely a third into its existence, Led Zeppelin is in near perfect live form, exhibiting all of the showmanship that would later define the group as one of the all time greats (if not the greatest) rock has ever seen. The power of the songs and their respective performances demonstrate how accomplished this four-year-old band was in 1972. Additionally, it is a credit to Jimmy Page's acute studio talents, as the sound quality of the set is flawless. Every bowed chord, cymbal crash and bass run is crystal clear, making for a phenomenal listening experience.
For the most part, however, How the West Was Won gives Zep fans what has been sorely lacking the past three decades: a live recording that does the group proud. The three discs have finally exorcised the demons of "The Song Remains the Same", with its bizarre dream sequences and haphazard concert footage. Listeners can now revel in a wonderful, but momentary glimpse from the past, never to be seen nor heard again.
The wait has been long but well worth it, as the new release is that good.