Way back around the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a band appeared to lay down sounds so barbaric, heavy, and full of menace as to provoke outrage from the same enlightened Rolling Stone critics who were then defending the Manson Family. The crits called the group’s music fascistic, labeled it “a tool of authoritarian control.” The band played the blues, but a mutant strain so cold and white—Thor-hammer riffs, woolly-mammoth drum stomps, banshee screams—that it was as if they had been picked up from a frozen steppe somewhere.
The band, of course, was Led Zeppelin. The guitar player and leader was an elegant wisp of a man. His name was Jimmy Page.
When he formed Led Zeppelin, Page was already a graduate of that renowned guitar school called the Yardbirds. But in Led Zeppelin, he assumed the status of a legend. It was said he’d made a pact with the devil, the standard soul-for-fame package. What followed was a decade of well-documented debauchery. Page entertained 14-year-old butter queens by the perpetual twilight of his suite in L.A.’s immortal “Riot House.” Practiced black magic with Kenneth Anger, nose-skiied miniature Alps of white powder, immersed himself in evil hoodoo. He was fabulously pale, ethereally frail, a magician shrouded in decadent mystery. It was all so beautiful, so mysterious, so ’70s.
Then came the Sex Pistols. Led Zeppelin soon became the punching bag of punk. Rich and bloated dinosaurs, hilariously out of touch. And one day Jimmy Page woke up to find himself in the Firm. Talk about cautionary rock tales! Page wandered for a spell in the desert of utter irrelevancy, then disappeared.
So what’s he doing here, in the year 2000, putting out a double live CD (Live at the Greek) of mostly Zeptunes with those Southern boogie boys the Black Crowes? And why the hell is it so great? Even more important, why should anyone care? The Who and the Stones regularly run down their greatest hits live, but nobody gives a shit but dumb-as-a-stump frat boys. Let Jimmy Page return to the stage, though, and jaded cynics (like yours truly) actually sit up and take notice.
The difference is that this is not mere nostalgia peddling. It’s a reawakening, a reacknowledgement of some article of faith we all agreed to forget we’d ever sworn ourselves to in the first place. From the opening of “Celebration Day,” a kick-out-the-jams-motherfucker of a tune if ever I heard one, it’s obvious that Page and the Crowes make an inspired match. “Custard Pie” boasts hooks big enough to catch Moby Dick (the fish, not the drum solo); Steve Gorman’s drumming on “Sick Again” is monstrous enough to rouse John Bonham from the dead. And Chris Robinson’s vocals on “What Is and What Should Never Be” make it clear he’s come not to praise Robert Plant but to bury him.
Even the traditional blues numbers sound great. Unlike the Zep, whose approach to the blues didn’t evoke Beale Street so much as the Nuremburg rallies, the Black Crowes lend a loose-as-a-goose Southern swing to the proceedings. “Woke Up This Morning” and “Sloppy Drunk” sound more like Skynyrd than they do Zeppelin, especially Ed Harsch’s keyboards. And Page’s solos sound endearingly casual, as if he’s having way more fun than a serious practitioner of the Black Arts oughta. The band even breathes life into the hoary psychedelia of “Shapes of Things to Come,” giving the Yardbirds number a soulful spin that makes it sound warm—funky, almost. The first disc’s closer, “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” is pure satanic majesty, its organ opening taking you to church and then to some English pasture somewhere, where the guitars swoop down on you like Led Skynyrd or Lynyrd Zeppelin—take your pick.
Disc 2 throws “The Lemon Song” at you, its lewd come-on smothered in guitars, all breakneck one minute, an exercise in controlled menace the next. “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” comes at you like something blaring from a minaret; Chris Robinson prays to Allah, and the drums explode like a jihad. Somebody once asked Jimmy Page what he was looking for, and his answer was, “Power, mystery, and the hammer of the Gods.” Well, this is it. Gorman’s drumming is a revelation; he sounds as if he’s pounding on the gates of hell, demanding admittance. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” is pure self-abasement—and probably the most approachable song Led Zeppelin ever cut.
Unfortunately, they follow it with “Mellow Down Easy.” It’s dumb boogie of a pleasant enough sort, but I sense the vapid shadow of Eric Clapton looming over it. The same goes for their take on Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” though the cutlass-flashing midsection suits me just fine. “Shake Your Money Maker” is pure unadorned skank-shake, which is okey-doke, I guess, if you’re a redneck geeking for tush. “Out on the Tiles” is more like it. The guitars sound like some secret weapon it’s good the Nazis weren’t able to mobilize during World War II, and Chris Robinson wants love—wants it so bad he’ll imitate Robert Plant to get it. And get it he does, on “Whole Lotta Love,” which I burned out on in the mid-’70s but which is undeniable here.
So laugh if you want, scream if you have to. Sure, Zep went over the top, did nasty things with shark meat, foisted “Stairway to Heaven” on unsuspecting stoners. But turn this baby on and you just may find yourself thinking, as I did, that if Page really did sign a pact with the Dark One, he got himself a pretty good deal. CP