Celebration Day

Led Zeppelin Live at O2 ArenaThis past Thursday night, I got to do something that I never thought in a million years I would have a chance to do: I saw Led Zeppelin live in concert.

Well, okay, I guess that’s stretching the truth a little bit. (Or a whole lot, depending on how much of a buzzkill you want to be here…) It wasn’t really live, per se….it was a movie. In a movie theater. There was a crowd, sure, but they were mostly seated and chewing popcorn … not so much with the crowd surfing.

What I witnessed, in actuality, was the brand new concert film “Celebration Day”, which captures Led Zeppelin’s triumphant reunion show at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Of course, it can never be a complete and true reunion …. drummer John Bonham died back in 1980, which led to the group’s breakup in the first place. Despite this, however, it can be noted that keeping the same genetic material in the lineup seems to be the next best thing: John’s son Jason Bonham was tapped for this show, and turned in a performance that was breathtaking in its endurance and its power. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself….

The concert was officially billed as the “Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert”, in honor of the legendary music executive and founder and president of Atlantic Records who had died the previous year at the age of 83. If you’re unfamiliar with his name, or the legacy of incredible music he’s responsible for, allow me to give you a link. Ahmet Ertegun signed and developed some of the biggest talents in the music industry for over three decades, names like (and see if you recognize any of these little-known artists) Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Genesis, Ray Charles, Yes, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (which was only Crosby, Stills & Nash until Ahmet hooked them up with Neil Young). Most important to this little story, however, is the fact that he heard a demo in the late 60s from a new group named Led Zeppelin, and loved it so much that he quickly signed them to his label.

So Ahmet passes away, and it’s decided that a tribute concert will be held, with all the proceeds going to the Ahmet Ertegun Educational Fund (which pays for university scholarships in the U.S., U.K., and Turkey, where the Ertegun family was originally from). Some acts from the Atlantic stable of artists were lined up, like Paul Rodgers (former lead singer of Bad Company), members of Yes, Mick Jones (former lead singer of Foreigner)…..and it’s rumored they even tried to get a reunited Cream together for the show. Well, they didn’t manage that, but they got something (in my humble opinion) MUCH, MUCH better.

It was announced on September 12, 2007 that the surviving members of Led Zeppelin would reunite for the show, performing a whole concert together for the first time in 27 years. On drums would be Jason Bonham, who had played on two previous occasions when brief “one-off” reunion performances had been held (fortunately, he hadn’t been involved with the disastrous 1985 performance at Live Aid, which the members of Zeppelin hated so much they refused to let it be put on the concert DVD when it was finally released). This time, however, it was not just a song or two, but a full show. Was he up to the challenge? Were the reunited members of Led Zeppelin up to the challenge?

To paraphrase Whitney Houston (God rest her soul): “HELL TO THE YES.”

Led Zeppelin Reunion PortraitI have to say that watching this concert film was an exhilarating experience, from the opening chords of “Good Times Bad Times” to the closing drum flourishes of “Black Dog”. I was alive when Led Zeppelin were in their prime, but really too young to have gone to the shows or known anything about the band (or music, for that matter….I was 8 years old when Bonham died). I guess if my parents had been hippies or metalheads or something more exciting, perhaps I would have ended up at a show sooner or later, and that certainly would score me bragging points in a conversation. But the fact is that I wouldn’t remember a damn thing about it (hell, I attended shows a year or so ago I can’t remember anything about), so what good would it do me? Now I was sitting there in the theater, fully aware and with my memory circuits on, watching these men who revolutionized music – who, in my mind, created a catalog so amazing and diverse, so full of power and beauty, that it rivals any output by any group that has ever existed – rock.

So very happy was I. (Said Yoda once.)

I knew it wasn’t precisely what it must have been like to see them in their prime, but there certainly were moments, sometimes more than moments, where I don’t believe it could have gotten any better. Lead vocalist Robert Plant, while not screaming, moaning, and wailing on every tune, certainly still has range, and used it quite a few times to jaw-dropping effect. Sometimes, it seemed like he was having trouble momentarily, and I’d think, “Oh, maybe his voice isn’t what it used to be”…. and then he’d turn around a moment later and let out a high-pitched wail that scolded me for even having the thought.

Guitarist Jimmy Page looked like he had consumed a valium cocktail before he took the stage, but wasn’t so relaxed that he couldn’t resurrect every distorted power riff that made Led Zeppelin the gods of rock’n’roll for so many years. He even reached into his bag of favorite weapons and pulled out the violin bow, the double-necked guitar (obligatory for playing “Stairway To Heaven”), and the theremin, which revealed itself to be good for much more than an extra sound texture in the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”.

Bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones has always been one of my favorites, and that’s not just because I’m a bass player. (Well, okay….maybe a little….) This multi-instrumentalist really was, in some ways, the glue that held Led Zeppelin together. Coming from a session player background, he had not only learned to play and master many different instruments, but also to arrange and write as well. He spent some time after Zeppelin broke up working as a producer and composer, and actually is responsible for the string arrangements on my favorite R.E.M. album, “Automatic For The People”. Still, watching him here, back in the role that made him rich and famous, was pretty neat. He didn’t do anything too outrageous, and he didn’t need to. Whether grooving on bass or laying down pads on the synthesizer, John Paul Jones is simply rock solid.

And lastly, Jason Bonham. I can only imagine the emotion involved, if he took the time to think about it (which I believe he probably did), in realizing that the last time these people got together to play a rock concert was 27 years ago, and your father was the drummer. Now after all these years of learning your father’s instrument, mastering his craft and making it your own, you’re on stage with these people, these amazingly talented musicians, who, with your dad, made rock and roll history. To just play those famous parts his father wrote, note for note, sometimes adding your own flourishes … I can’t even imagine the weight of that. But if he felt it, it never showed. He started playing and never stopped, never slowed, never flinched, for almost two hours.

When it was all over and the crowd was cheering, and the band members were all standing at the edge of the stage waving, I thought then that I saw tears in his eyes, but, of course, I really can’t blame him. What an amazing night for him that must have been. Or, as Jimmy Page noted in a later interview, “I look back on that night with a great amount of fondness, but Jason was the hero. For me that gig was about him.”

The limited release shows in movie theaters are over now, but don’t despair … “Celebration Day” comes to CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray on November 19th. My advice? Get the best speakers and the biggest TV screen you can find, run out and grab yourself a copy of the DVD, and then rush home and play it as loud as you possibly can.

And, really, forget the popcorn … just pack your living room with friends and crowd surf.

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