How The West Was Won

Led Zeppelin

Atlantic Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


For fans of the late, lamented rock group Led Zeppelin, the release of any new material (new, of course, meaning not commercially released prior to their breakup in 1980) is cause for celebration. It was reason enough to drop $70 for the four-CD self-titled box set in 1990, which gave the world only two new songs (one of which, "Travelling Riverside Blues," was widely bootlegged).

So being given How The West Was Won, a three-CD set capturing Jimmy Page and crew in two concerts from July 1972 (prior to the release of Houses Of The Holy) should be enough to send Zep-heads into near rapture. Indeed, this does supplant BBC Recordings and the abysmal The Song Remains The Same to become the live recording of Led Zeppelin's discography.

And, like Led Zeppelin, this set captures both the good and the bad that was this group, leaving the listener both pleased with the end results… and a bit of an empty feeling, as if something else should have been included to make this release better.

Actually, throughout the first disc of How The West Was Won (taken from shows in Long Beach and Los Angeles), it feels like Page and crew can do no wrong. Even with a bit of a distorted and sloppy opening to "Immigrant Song," the energy that the band pours into its instruments (and, in Robert Plant's case, his vocals) is a reminder to everyone just how intense Led Zeppelin could be on stage. Sure, it might be the millionth time you've heard "Stairway To Heaven" in some form, but hearing it in this setting just feels right, as if you're sitting in the first few rows and are watching Page work his magic on his Gibson double-neck.

What sets this first disc apart is that this is the first time that Led Zeppelin has ever released any of their live acoustic material - namely, the versions of "Going To California," "That's The Way" and "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp". The interplay between Plant's vocals and the string work from Page and John Paul Jones speaks louder than any 190-decibel blast from a Marshall stack could, and makes me wish that more material like this would see the light of day. (I'm still working my way through DVD -- we'll get to that soon here on "The Daily Vault".)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Disc two starts off well enough with "Dazed And Confused," a song which does seem to have a little more power when you can actually see what Page and crew are doing. And while this version tops the one that was on the album release of The Song Remains The Same, nothing I've heard -- even on bootlegs -- has topped the version that was on the film for sheer kinetic energy.

Where things start to slip for How The West Was Won is on "Moby Dick" -- otherwise known as John Bonham's drum solo. Now, there is no denying that Bonham was one of the most electrifying and powerful drummers in the history of rock. But the visual of Bonham's attacking his drum kit is a major factor in this power, and just being given an audio demonstration gets boring - especially when you have 19 minutes' worth of skin pounding. If you never saw Led Zeppelin live or have never seen the movie The Song Remains The Same, you might not know that Bonham would, at one point, drop his sticks and play his drums with his hands. Visually, it's powerful; audio only, it's underwhelming.

The final disc of this set almost feels like it's trying to atone for the mistakes that "Moby Dick" made with this set -- and again, it feels like Led Zeppelin doesn't follow the formula of "less is more". I know that "Whole Lotta Love" often got stretched out to mammoth proportions, especially with Page's theremin solo (which seems like a bit of a waste this time) and the band's dive into the rhythm & blues that made up their backbone. But sometimes, it feels like Zeppelin overplays their hand in this regard, featuring, if I counted right, about 15 minutes' worth of roots worship. It just feels like a lot of overkill, especially when there was no questioning the band's roots or power by this time in their career.

The game of "catch-up" concludes with a pretty standard version of "Rock And Roll," an early rendition of "The Ocean" (which is still pretty tasty) and a final blues/roots number, "Bring It On Home". Again, it sometimes feels like Led Zeppelin are trying too hard to justify their rights to play the blues, and this last track almost seems to be anticlimactic.

Don't get me wrong, any official release of live Led Zeppelin material is always a joy, and How The West Was Won is still very much a worthwhile investment, even if it could have been pared down to a two-disc set. But part of me has to wonder why Page selected this particular show for release. There is, for example, a soundboard recording of Zeppelin's final show from Berlin in 1980. (I know… I have it.) There is the series of recordings from Detroit that are known as Destroyer, possibly the best-known of the Zeppelin bootlegs. One has to wonder just how much more material Page has in the vaults, or if he'd even consider releasing a series of cleaned-up bootlegs a la Frank Zappa. Until then, this will do just fine.

Rating: B-

User Rating: C



© 2003 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.