All that was powerful and mysterious returns on 'Celebration Day'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
For years, the mere thought of a Led Zeppelin reunion was at once intriguing and ridiculous, a rumor that seemed to have no base yet left fans giddy at its prospects. The band split a few weeks after the death of drummer John Bonham, got together a couple of times for one-off performances with little rehearsal, and collectively did its best to quash any whispers of reuniting.
All this made their Dec. 10, 2007, show at London’s O2 arena as fantastic as it was unfathomable. Reuniting in tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the indispensable founder of Atlantic Records who had passed away the previous year, Led Zeppelin turned the show into a mysterious spectacle as only they could. Would the show even happen? There were a couple of delays that called the entire production into question. Would everyone be on his game? Would Jason Bonham be able to fill the drum seat?
They answered every question with flair and swagger, and finally, they’ve released the results on Celebration Day, a live album that captures that night in full and comes in nearly every CD/DVD/Blu-Ray/vinyl combination imaginable.
Beyond the gymnastics involved in making the reunion possible, what’s most surprising is just how adventurous the band was feeling for their first real concert in 27 years. Playing “Ramble On” in full for the first time ever is one thing, but springing “For Your Life” on an unsuspecting crowd, likely expecting a cavalry of hits and nothing else, speaks to the coy relationship they’ve always had with their audience. They played whatever they wanted, and their decisions happened to jibe with what audience wanted, even when they didn’t realize they wanted it. Here, they pull out a deep track from Presence and it fits as well as “The Song Remains the Same” or “Black Dog.”
In an obvious sign of maturity, Robert Plant’s delivery is excellent and reflects how the years have changed his voice and how he’s been able to adapt to the material without changing it all that much. He navigates the blues material and slower songs with ease, but even on up-tempo songs like “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll,” he finds a way to fit in without either embarrassing himself or sounding out of his depth. Those are songs that the 25-year-old Plant would wail on for hours. With the instrument changed, he gives the songs the proper enthusiasm without pretending to be a kid.
The rest of the band is on top of its collective game. John Paul Jones, ever the professional, adds his lean and heavy bass as well as his impressive range on keyboards, letting the band avoid the pitfalls so many older bands fall into of augmenting their core with padding of studio professionals. Jones is an orchestra unto himself, adding the funk to “Trampled Under Foot” and creating the mysterious air on “No Quarter.”
By extension, Jimmy Page is as much a wizard as he’s ever been, and his years on stage have given him a sense of self-editing that he didn’t have in the early 1970s, keeping the trance solos on “Dazed and Confused” thrilling without lapsing into tedium. Add in his tone, which has had few peers in the rock and roll era, and a sense of urgency that’s obviously present, and what remains is a master at work.
The maturity extended to a deeper and more truthful acknowledgement of the music’s history. Where the band was criticized for years — and rightfully so — for their lack of crediting the blues artists that inspired some of their songs, here, Plant takes the opportunity to share not just stories of the band in their early days, but to pass on bits of history of the songs and where Zeppelin fits in each number’s arc. This giving spirit even extends to the liner notes, where Jake Holmes is finally credited as inspiration for “Dazed and Confused.”
Where history gives way to the present lays the drummer’s seat, where Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham, fills the void with zeal and a thunderous approach to the kit that would have made his father proud. Ginger Baker once said that a band is only as good as its drummer, and where the elder Bonham served as the near-literal Hammer of the Gods for the original Zeppelin, Jason Bonham is a tremendous asset, fueled by emotion and the weight of the moment.
If you’re looking for one moment where all these elements come together perfectly, that’s best represented on “Kashmir,” which closed the main set of the original concert and featured Plant’s powerful delivery over Page’s eastern-inspired riff and Jones’ navigating different planes on the keyboards. Of course, on the original track, the only bit more memorable than the synth-string riff was John Bonham’s drums pulverizing the beat, and here, Jason matches that to the point that the notion of Zeppelin’s missing is not even a thought. He just fits in, and this version of the band feels as natural as any.
With that, the title is as apt as could be, and that it’s also a title in their catalog is a nice bow on the package. This was a celebration of the band, its history and the man that brought them to Atlantic Records more than 40 years ago. The music is treated with the proper amount of reverence and kept relevant by its powerful reading. It’s hard to see fault anywhere in the production.
For a band that shunned the big reunion for so long, that they were able to finally play a real show together and maintain their unique air of mystery is a testament to how well they understand themselves and what they’ve meant. So skilled was this transformation that subpar performances at Live Aid in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 seem to be pushed to the far recesses of memory, moments that now don’t seem to count.
They proved they could still be a force on stage, and by treading so deliberately into the reunion waters, they showed their on-again, off-again peers how to maintain dignity while giving the fans what they really want. This was Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones stepping up to show that they still control what Led Zeppelin was and what it could be. They found a fitting partner in Jason Bonham, and if Celebration Day is the coda on the Led Zeppelin saga, it is a tremendous one.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com