Celebration Day

Led Zeppelin

Swan Song, 2012


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


In his excellent 2011 Led Zeppelin biography When Giants Walked The Earth, Mick Wall writes that he enjoyed the 2007 reunion show but probably would not pay to see the band again.

In the liner notes to Celebration Day, the two CD chronicle of that show, singer Robert Plant writes that, among the reasons for this one-off reunion, the show could “do justice to meaning and expectation…anticipation and hype are not sensitive bedfellows.”

Both philosophies are important heading into this show, which was recorded and filmed at the O2 arena in London as part of the tribute concert to Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic being Zeppelin’s record label from 1968-75, when they were perhaps the biggest band in the world. Fondly remembered by seemingly every musician signed to the label, Ahmet was an influence and champion of music; as Plant describes it, he spent “30 years shaping taste for aspiring musicians.”

It is as good a reason as any for a reunion show, although for salivating fans, any reason will do. Other than a couple of subpar one-off shows in the ‘80s, there has never been any sort of real Zeppelin reunion since drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980. This has only deepened the mystique and strength of the band’s music and persona; unlike most other bands, Zeppelin has not sullied their name by playing the same old hits, adding new members, touring into their sixties, and trying to record new music that captures the old spirit but ends up defiling it.

It’s not for lack of trying on guitarist Jimmy Page’s part, as Wall’s biography makes clear, but more a reluctance on Plant’s part. He has spoken often about not wanting to sing the same old songs and have the same public image. True to his (and the Zeppelin) spirit, he has forged a solo path with music unafraid to take chances, to be different, to draw on different styles and moods. The Raising Sand collaboration with Alison Krauss further confirmed this, and for a while it looked as if a Zeppelin reunion would never happen. The closest we came was the 1994 acoustic No Quarter show, which was a Plant/Page reunion only and which showed a different side to the Zeppelin catalog.

But the fans continued asking, wishing, hoping, and the show finally came to pass, with Bonham’s son Jason filling in on drums. It was pretty much understood this would be one show only instead of the lead to a tour or new album, which means this show had to not only be fantastic in its own right, but it had to live up to 27 years of fan expectations and a back catalog of some of the best rock music ever made. Strange bedfellows, indeed.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Pretty much every major Zeppelin song is here, with the vast majority taken from the first five albums, three from Physical Graffiti and two from Presence. The only real surprise is “For Your Life,” which has never been played live – a risky move, but the guys do the song justice. The rest is hard and heavy, emphasizing mood and power over speed; this means there is nothing acoustic, nothing fast like “Immigrant Song,” and nothing from In Through The Out Door or Led Zeppelin III save “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”

Yet more than any heavy rock band, Zeppelin is able to create and sustain a mood and a groove in nearly every song, no matter how hard or complex, and a wised-up band with decades of life is able to add gravitas to a performance, instead of a youthful swagger. This means Page doesn’t take long or flashy solos, Plant doesn’t hit all the high notes or all the fill-in words during verses, and Jones keeps his bass and keyboard playing within the confines of what the song requires.

Jones, in fact, anchors many of the songs and provides many of the best moments here, proving that Zeppelin isn’t a true band without him. His piano on “No Quarter” is sublime, more knowing and earthy than the version on The Song Remains The Same, while his keyboards on “Trampled Under Foot” trade places with Page’s liquid fills in a battle to the finish; the song is a moment you hope never ends, and it always has been, and it always will be, regardless of the version.

The show starts a bit slow with a slowed-down, lackluster “Good Times Bad Times” and a subdued “Ramble On,” but picks up with “Black Dog” and the long blues of “In My Time Of Dying.” As expected given the band’s age, every song is pitched in a lower key and slowed down a bit, which hinders some of the songs but doesn’t affect most, once you get used to it. This was likely done to accommodate Plant’s voice, which has lost some of its high range (obviously), yet to compensate the singer portrays a husky gravity befitting an old bluesman.

There are times when Plant doesn’t seem too invested in the songs, speeding up certain phrases and leaving out some words altogether, but these moments are seldom. To Page’s delight, Plant consented to sing “Stairway To Heaven” without fanfare and in the middle of the show, but he brings the song his all.

Page remains the star and proves he hasn’t lost a step with age, veering from the solos on the longer blues numbers to the power of “Rock And Roll” and “The Song Remains The Same” to the groove on “Misty Mountain Hop.” It is rewarding to hear the original band play “Kashmir” and “Dazed And Confused.” The latter is the only time Page gives in to his showy impulses, but it doesn’t last long, and you’ll forget about it when the whole band kicks in at the seven  minute mark.

Celebration Day ends up fulfilling its promise, serving as a fantastic concert, a treat for fans and a vindication that, despite the pressure, the old Zeppelin magic is still alive in the songs and interplay between band members. And when it’s over, the listener is left with a sort of final satisfaction, such as the one akin to reading the epilogue of a favorite book. You don’t need to read any more. The story is finished.

Rating: B+

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