Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Led Zeppelin Trilogy: The Song Remains the Same, No Quarter, and Celebration Day

With Led Zeppelin’s remastered rereleases completely dominating the music I have been listening to these past few months, particularly Physical Graffiti, I thought the time is right to go over some Led Zeppelin performances available on video. There is nothing new here, just me observing trends with one of my favourite bands through videos I have watched countless of times. I’ll go about it chronologically.

The Song Remains the Same
If you’re after Led Zeppelin at its creative peak, this is the video you’re after. Essentially, this is a video of a live performance at New York’s Maddison Square Garden from 1974 / early 1975 (I am entirely speculating here based on the songs lineup: these include material from Houses of the Holly but nothing from Physical Graffiti).
Video wise, the live performance is packed with a drug inspired thematic story about the band members (including sightings of a child called Jason Bonham, whom we will revisit later down this review). Nothing to distract from the music, though. Better yet, a few years ago this video was remastered as per modern standards, which means the picture and – more importantly – the sound are much better than they used to be in the older renditions, including the performance’s double CD set I still own (which followed up on ancient vinyl). There are also more songs than on the CD set and fewer cuts. For example, on the CD we have Robert Plant introducing “John Bonham, Moby Dick”, whereas on the video he goes “our percussionist, John Bonham, Moby Dick”. Go figure; I suspect the first edition had to contend with the time limitations of the vinyl format.
Let’s cut to the chase: the performance at hand is that of a well coordinated machine of a band that is full of itself, but rightly so; the talent levels oozing from all four band members are exceptional as they provide a masterful, well planned, rendition of their best titles to date.
My favourite piece here has to be Dazed and Confused, inflated to a 25 minute performance that varies in style from your blues to your hard rock and features Jimmy Page playing his guitar like a violin. It is a masterpiece, no doubt about it; Whole Lotta Love receives similar, if less grandiose, treatment, too. These two are not on their own: in my book, the Stairway to Heaven version here is the Zeppelin’s best ever.
Overall: Ignore the surrealistic video and focus on the 5 out of 5 crabs, best of the best, musical performance.

No Quarter
We’re now at the early nineties. Led Zeppelin hasn’t existed for more than a decade now, but Jimmy Page and Robert Plant decided on a sort of a reunion (which they forgot to tell John Paul Jones about). The result is intriguing, though, and although not officially Zeppelin so I consider it a part of the Led Zeppelin canon.
Essentially, No Quarter is Led Zeppelin’s contribution to the unplugged theme that was popular at the time. Its performances include straight renditions of Led Zeppelin titles with significantly more straight, less post production processed, renditions; songs performed in outdoor settings; Moroccan/Egyptian/Arab themes; classic/philharmonic themes. Location wise, some of the songs appear to have been shot on location at Morocco, some in some sort of a quarry looking setting, and most are at a live stage. Most songs feature our Page and Plant joined by band member replacements (drummer, bass), some feature an Arab band, some a classical orchestra, and some a mix of the above. The combination of all three is what, in my mind, makes No Quarter stand out.
Page and Plant are still on top of their game here. If you liked Page’s double guitar from The Song Remains the Same then you will like the triple guitar he uses here! Together, the two perform some original songs but mostly Led Zeppelin covers (as they should!). The latter includes a personal favourite, When the Levee Breaks, which may not be the best rendition of a Zeppelin song ever but is valuable because this song is so rarely performed (relying, as it does, on post production processing); that said, don’t hold your breath for that famous drums sound.
As I said, in my opinion No Quarter shines when all three elements are synergised together. The peak is its rendition of Kashmir, which – in my humble opinion – is the best Kashmir ever and probably the most creative rendition of a Zeppelin song ever.
Overall: It’s good and its original, but the absence of Bonham and Jones is felt. I’m giving No Quarter 4 out of 5 unleaded crabs.

Celebration Day
Fast forward to 2007. The band that was at its peak in The Song Remains the Same reunites for a single show, with members now aged around the 60 mark and Jason Bonham, the son of, sitting in place of his legendary father. The question on everybody’s mind, and most evidently in our band’s mind, is – can they/we still do it? Do they/we still have what it takes?
You might have guessed it: the answer was a resounding yes. The band can still do it. They start off with a rather shaky Good Times, Bad Times (the first song from the first Led Zeppelin album), but a couple more songs later they’re running on all cylinders. The music is definitely still alive and kicking, thank you very much!
So yes, the renditions are less pompous. Dazed and Confused still has Page playing the violin guitar, but it’s a short go. Similarly for Stairway to Heaven: Page’s solo is significantly shorter, but that does not mean it’s in any way inferior. And yes, Plant’s voice doesn’t reach his former highs, but he adjusts for it; and the younger Bonham is not his father, but he isn’t bad either. As for John Paul Jones, he is definitely at the top of his game – just listen to his fretless bass guitar to see this versatile and talented musician still has a lot to offer.
Combined with the previous two videos, Celebration Day is an interesting document on the personal development of this world conquering band. There is humility (dare I say insecurity?) in the performance here, in total contrast to what we’ve seen in The Song Remains the Same. The band members know it: just note the way Page kisses his guitar and guitar pick at the end to see what they think.
As for personal favourites, there are some good pickings to be had here but I would go for what is probably my all time favourite Led Zep song: In My Time of Dying. It’s the fourth track, and it’s the one where our band members finally realise they’re doing it and doing it well. The combination of great sound, a performance that does justice to Led Zeppelin’s longest studio track, and a shining performance from John Paul Jones in particular, captivates me again and again. It also forces me to state that, in my personal time of dying, I would very much like to have this song playing. I know I’m not likely to be able to know when my time arrives, but if I can then I want it to be to the tune of music that clearly reminds me just how much life is worth living.
Overall: Celebration Day proves that the song does not necessarily remain the same; it can get better. 5 out of 5 crabs take their hats off to this inspired performance.

If you are after more Led Zeppelin on video, there is also How the West Was Won. It’s a collection of live performances from the band’s active years. In my opinion, The Song Remains the Same does a much better job of representing that era, even if it lacks songs from later albums.

No comments: