The Hammer Of The Gods comes crashing down once more...
In many ways Led Zeppelin’s first full UK show for 18 years is a triumph before they even hit the stage. Consider the significant number of those fortunate to have triumphed in that lottery, who’ve been queuing outside since Saturday, desperate to just get their hands on their tickets, to make sure they’re real; or the guy who wasn’t quite so lucky way back in September, yet felt compelled to shell out £83,000 – £83,000! – for a pair of seats. Consider the seemingly endless succession of salivating music mag pieces in the last two months, speculating as to what they’ll play, desperately trying to prise out of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant or John Paul Jones whether this reunion really is for one night only. They may not have planned it as such, but in terms of re-establishing Led Zeppelin in public consciousness, doing – for now, anyway – just this one, relatively intimate tribute show has been an absolute masterstroke. They’ve pissed all over Prince’s 21-night parade at The O2. Truly, this is an event, and one like no other. All Led Zeppelin have to do is show up, be coherent, and the goodwill of their audience will do the rest.
It’s a surprise, then, just how well-drilled, how incendiary they actually are tonight. Sneaking on to the stage as a backdrop of an old TV set shows footage of their glory days, the opening ‘Good Times Bad Times’ may be a little shaky – not to mention dogged by sound problems – but by the time Robert Plant offers a cursory “Good evening!” following a firey ‘Ramble On’ and a juddering ‘Black Dog’, they’re locked in as if it were 1973. Both are brave choices so early on; the former because it is so characterised in its recorded guise by John Bonham’s thunderous drums, the latter because if there were any problems with Plant’s voice, they’d surely be most evident here. But there are none. Plant’s shriek is as spine-tingling as it is on any of the albums. And Jason Bonham? Well, let’s not patronise him by saying he’s doing his daddy proud; let’s just say he’s more on the money than anyone could possibly have imagined.
The epic ‘In My Time Of Dying’ follows – a showcase for Jimmy Page’s bottleneck blues guitar. Only at this point, after the initial shock of actually seeing them onstage together has subsided, does it become apparent just how raw Led Zeppelin are. Not for them, the keyboards, the backing singers, the extra session musicians that dampen, say, the Rolling Stones’ or The Who’s live shows. In fact, Page, Plant and Jones spend a large proportion of their two-hour performance huddled together in a three-metre-square section of the giant stage in front of Jason Bonham’s kit – flashing each other looks, absorbed in each other’s playing. There’s a giant backdrop and some green lasers, but these are the only concessions to any sort of ‘show’. They throw in lesser-known song ‘For Your Life’ (played live for the first time ever) rather than some of their more obvious crowd-pleasers, following it with more surprises in the shape of ‘Trampled Under Foot’ and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. These may not be songs that were first on all those fantasy setlists that have been compiled over the last few weeks, but they are welcome inclusions – proof that Led Zep are playing for themselves as much as anyone.
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There then follows something of a Zep holy trinity, in the shape of ‘No Quarter’, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ and ‘Dazed And Confused’. Histrionic, ridiculous, over-the-top, strung out, powerful rock’n’roll friggin’ opuses – this is what people have paid all that money to see. Jimmy Page veers off into one thrillingly unplanned, visceral solo after another, John Paul Jones doubles up on organ and Robert Plant screeches over the top, ad-libbing all the way. On paper, in words, this may sound like the hideously proggy antithesis of all that is good in music, but in practice, here and now, it sounds as vital and exciting as any bunch of punk rockers you care to name. And when Led Zeppelin
reel out ‘Stairway To Heaven’ – that’s ‘Stairway To Fuckin’ Heaven’, people – they achieve the unthinkable: reclaiming their most preposterous moment from the realms of laughable cliché. Never in my
life did I imagine I’d ever type the sentence “‘Stairway To Heaven’ sounds magnificent”. But it does. As does the closing salvo of ‘Song Remains The Same’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ (featuring Jason’s backing vocals) and a stupendously well-received ‘Kashmir’, as do the encores of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Rock And Roll’.
So Led Zeppelin have proved, in the face of all this reignited interest, that they can still cut it. And then some. On tonight’s showing they’re much rawer, more vital-sounding, less pantomine than any of their dinosaur rock contemporaries. What’s more, they appear to be doing it again for the right reasons – that being the joy of playing, not money. Will they continue? On this evidence, it would be a travesty if they didn’t.