Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (review)

Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day – Live DVD (Atlantic) review

We wanted a reunion tour – we got one night, one damned good night

Since the untimely passing of drummer John Bonham in 1980, Led Zeppelin have played only three concerts.  The first one, in July of 1985, was in front of 1 billion people for the Ethiopian benefit concert Live Aid.  Yet, Jimmy Page’s guitar was out of tune, Robert Plant’s voice was off-key, and fill-in drummer Phil Collins flubbed his drum fills several times (he never had time to rehearse with the band before the gig). The second time was for the 40th anniversary of their former record label, Atlantic Records, in 1988.  Although their performance wasn’t marred in any mistakes, the band looked and sounded small – like a garage band covering classic rock songs, instead of one of the greatest bands in all of rock.

And then, we waited.  As time went by, rumors would swirl about a possible reunion tour.  Yet, some band member – usually Plant, would shoot them down.  He was quoted at one point as objecting to reuniting because it would “mess with our legacy.”  He and Page joined up for the MTV No Quarter – Unledded project in 1994, and we got to see what he meant, as that “unplugged” album sounded tired, and didn’t live up to the lofty standards set by Zeppelin.

Yet, as much as they were against it, those two lackluster reunions loomed large in their minds – they refused to have their Live Aid performance included for the historic show’s official DVD release in 2004.  But, you can still watch either of them on Youtube.  That’s why they needed to play one more time.  No, it wouldn’t be the full-blown reunion tour we all wanted.  Instead, just one night, and they were doing it  for themselves. But, this time, there would be months of rehearsal, to get things just right. And, where their previous two performances were short, truncated sets, this time they would play a full-on concert of their classic material.

For this concert, a DVD / 2-CD set called Celebration Day, the band once again looks larger than life.  Plant has let his hair (or wig) grow out, resembling the classic mane we all loved back in the day, while Page has let his go totally white.  John Paul Jones, short hair and in good shape, looks 20 years younger than the other two, while Jason Bonham, son of the late drummer John, sports a shaved head and sunglasses.  The show opens with side one, cut one of the very first Zeppelin record, “Good Times Bad Times.”  Immediately, you can tell this is a well-oiled machine.    The band nails the heavily-percussive points effortlessly.  Plant struggles a little with “Ramble On,” but hell – 40 years has passed since he originally recorded the vocal on their second LP (there is a nice snippet of “What is and What Should Never Be” at the end of the track).  “Black Dog” is even better, again the band nails all the stop/starts with precision.

The use of clever editing, videos on the big screens behind the band, and an effect that makes the picture look like handheld Super 8 film, adds to the excitement level of the performance.

Bonham, who sounded tentative on the 40th anniversary concert, here is relaxed and really shines.  There are many times where you forget that it’s NOT John back there playing drums, and that’s a huge compliment.  He also helps out vocally, dueting with Plant on “Misty Mountain Hop.”

The one member that really surprises throughout Celebration Day is John Paul Jones.  Not only does he lay down some incredible bass lines that help propel these classic songs along, when he switches to keyboards, he plays the bass notes with his feet! And, he does this for several songs during the set.

One jarring thing that stands out is Page’s guitar tone – there’s absolutely nothing warm about it – it’s all shrill and biting, to the point where at times, it borders on unlistenable.  “Signature” or not, he could’ve tweaked the treble control a little.

Then, there’s Plant, who admits at one point to having “1000 emotions right now.”  Yes, some of the songs are obviously in a lower key, but he still belts them out.  Other times, the quiet approach he took with his last few solo efforts works well in the Zep context, giving the songs a grizzled weariness.

There are some surprises here too – Plant remarks “this is a first adventure with this song in public” before launching into “For Your Life,” which the band never attempted before in concert.   For an old guy, he hits an incredibly high note near the end of “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”

Another change is the band’s willingness to acknowledge their influences (even if the songwriting credits didn’t originally reflect this on their LPs).  Plant admits that “Trampled Under Foot” was a direct descendant of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues,” while Blind Willie Johnson is where they first heard “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” That particular song is one of the highlights of the whole concert, with the band turning in a ferocious performance, featuring an incredible blues harp solo by Plant.

Not everything is that stellar.  Plant admits to the crowd that there were some songs they just “had to do,” before launching into a messy rendition of “Dazed and Confused, where things just never gel.  It’s the one song where Bonham oversteps his bounds, adding way too many fills, while Page peels off some of the most gruesome squawks and squeals from his guitar ever heard (and yes, he does pull out his bow at one point).  Plant’s voice by this point is hoarse, and doesn’t have the punch to really send this over the top.

Of course the other one they “had to do” was “Stairway to Heaven,” but honestly, after seeing Heart rip through it at the Kennedy Center Honors, this pales in comparison.  Plant seems tired – after really giving it his all for most of the show, he doesn’t seem to have much left.  Even on his signature double-neck guitar, Page’s guitar tone is still piercing.  At the end, Plant looks up to the sky and says “Hey Ahmet, we did it!”

The band encored with “Whole Lotta Love,” choosing to leave the psychedelic middle in, to great effect.  Near the end, Plant sings the chorus to “You Need Love,” the Muddy Waters track from which “Whole Lotta Love” was stolen.  The evening closes with a spirited run through of “Rock n’ Roll,” featuring classic clips of the band through the years, running on the video screen.  Near the very end,  Plant extends the “lonely, lonely time” part out quite a bit – it’s as if he doesn’t want it to end.  As the song closes, the band embraces, walking off the stage while a giant Led Zeppelin logo looms overhead.  Yes, for one more time, they were larger than life.

The deluxe edition comes with a bonus DVD featuring a rehearsal of the show from four days earlier.  In a way, this spoils the magic – it’s a single-camera, wide angle shot of the band running through the concert, but they’re not on an actual stage, so they look small.  Plus, a lot of the performances are ragged (especially bad is the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven,” Page seems like he’s forgotten how to play it).  There are some funny moments where Plant jokes between songs.  After “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” he asks “are you recording this – good, I don’t think we played it that well since about 1910.”

There’s also the audio of the entire concert spread out over two CDs, but it’s just not the same.  Without the video of the band back together, a great deal of the energy is lost.  Taken on it’s own, the actual music of these performances okay, but not stellar.  What it does is makes you want to return to the band’s classic albums to what these were supposed to sound like.

It seems utterly amazing that this much effort was put in (rehearsals, extensive light show, video screens) for a single night’s performance.  There is speculation that there could have been more – a full-on world tour, perhaps?  But, Plant’s collaboration with bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, proved to be a surprise runaway hit, diverting his attention away from Zeppelin at that crucial crossroad.

Another question is “why did it take so long for this to finally come out”?  This was recorded back in 2007.  Perhaps, the band wanted to let all the reunion rumors settle before putting this out.  Now, five years after the fact, we are assured that there will not be another reunion.  But, if Celebration Day is indeed the last we will ever hear from Led Zeppelin, they finally did it right – and went out in style.  –Tony Peters