- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2003

The “hammer of the gods” dropped with colossal force Tuesday as Led Zeppelin, the long-defunct but still widely revered and influential ‘70s hard-rock supergroup, released what may be its last official document.

“Led Zeppelin DVD” and the triple-CD “How the West Was Won” together span most of the group’s 12-year career, from early promotional TV appearances in 1969 to its last appearance at England’s Knebworth Festival in 1979.

The collection, coinciding with the 35th anniversary of the band’s virgin rehearsal, is Led Zeppelin’s first live release since the 1976 concert movie “The Song Remains the Same” (four outtakes of which are included on “DVD”) and its accompanying soundtrack.

Fans hoping that “DVD,” masterfully restored in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound by director Dick Carruthers, is the tip of the video footage iceberg should scale back their expectations and content themselves with this set.

In a forthcoming issue of Guitar World magazine, Jimmy Page says the 5-hour “DVD” was basically an archival purge, for the simple reason that the band eschewed television and rarely made non-audio recordings of its shows.

“[W]e decided that there was no point in promoting the band on TV. The way they presented us was crap, and the sound was an absolute disaster,” Mr. Page told the monthly targeted at musicians.

More may eventually follow after “West,” but Mr. Page says many of the band’s live recordings were stolen from his house in the late ‘80s and are already in wide bootleg circulation.

Still, there’s plenty to digest with “DVD” and “West,” which collectively clock in at nearly nine hours.

The first of the two DVDs documents Zeppelin at a 1970 concert at London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall, a performance of titanic proportions. The band, formed just two years earlier by Mr. Page, an ex-Yardbird, had released its first pair of albums, “I” and “II,” both of which shattered the paradigm of guitar-based pop music.

Led Zeppelin was a miraculous amalgam of Robert Plant’s erotic howling; the late John Bonham’s horrifically igneous drumming; bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones’ classically honed inventiveness; and, of course, Mr. Page, who, along with Keith Richards, is rock’s archetypal guitar riffmeister.

Early-period Zeppelin, captured brilliantly on the first chunk of “DVD,” was marked by a kind of satanic electric blues, as typified by “Dazed and Confused,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “How Many More Times.”

Even the more pop-oriented “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker” had their dark sides. Mr. Page, looking oddly tweedy in a sweater vest for the Albert Hall concert, took 12-bar blues and Arabized them — East meets the American South, one might say.

Essentially an instrumental trio, the young Zeppelin made a huge, sometimes undisciplined noise, but a portion of the second DVD, footage from London’s Earls Court arena in 1975, shows the band in its quieter, more intimate mode.

With Mr. Plant, Mr. Jones (on mandolin) and Mr. Page (on acoustic guitar) all seated in a row, Zeppelin runs through the tender ballad “Going to California” and the dreamy “That’s the Way” before Mr. Bonham rejoins them for the pulsating acoustic blues of “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp.”

For a band that laid the sonic foundation for modern heavy metal, as the performance of the epic “Achilles Last Stand” from Knebworth shows, Led Zeppelin is perhaps underrated for its dynamic eclecticism, which never really came across in its live performances.

A rendition of “Over the Hills and Far Away,” from “West’s” first disc, reveals an inherent risk in Zeppelin’s three-man live instrumentation. His electric guitar out of tune, Mr. Page botches the song’s delicately layered acoustic intro.

The complaint isn’t quite mooted even after the rest of the band joins in. Those who are familiar with “Hills,” a classic-rock radio staple, will notice what’s missing when they hear three players try to reproduce a studio production with multiple overdubs.

This may be blasphemous to say, but Mr. Page’s 1999 collaboration with the Black Crowes, “Live at the Greek,” a triple-guitar attack, might be a better representation of how Led Zeppelin’s studio creations could sound in a live situation. (“Greek,” incidentally, was produced by Kevin Shirley, whom Mr. Page tapped to co-supervise “West.”)

Still, the pure, adrenaline-rushing energy of Zeppelin in its prime is matchless.

“West” presents audio recordings of two 1972 concerts at the Los Angeles Forum and Long Beach Arena, knitted together, according to press notes, to reflect the band’s average concert length (nearly three hours) and a typical set list.

The standout tracks on “West” include a thunderous “Immigrant Song” and, as on “DVD,” acoustic performances of “Going to California,” “That’s the Way” and “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp.” The grinding blues of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” are exquisite, too.

Long, jam-happy renditions of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused” seem a tad bloated and differ little in arrangement from “The Song Remains the Same,” which was filmed a year later at Madison Square Garden.

Both marathons, however, are spiced up by pinches of ‘50s rock and blues standards, and on “Heartbreaker,” Mr. Page even breaks into the medieval “Greensleeves” melody during his solo showcase.

A nearly 20-minute version of the instrumental “Moby Dick” doesn’t fare quite as well; consisting mostly of Mr. Bonham’s drum soloing, it’s a bit of a snore.

These are minor carps, however. “West” is Led Zeppelin at its finest and strongly buttresses its reputation as one of the best live bands in rock history.

Glimpsing the band at Knebworth, with the dreadful ‘80s approaching and Mr. Jones playing a Yamaha synthesizer, it seems almost fortunate for the band’s legacy that it stopped so suddenly, in deference to the passing of Mr. Bonham, who died of an alcohol binge in 1980.

There were three quasi-reunions, at Live Aid in 1985, Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary celebration in 1988 and at Zeppelin’s Hall of Fame induction in 1995. Mr. Page and Mr. Plant also collaborated twice in the ‘90s, leaning heavily on Zeppelin but producing a decent album of new original material for “Walking Into Clarksdale” (1998).

Mr. Jones, for his part, has quietly led a successful career as a producer and arranger, working with artists such as R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel.

There’s chatter about a Led Zeppelin reunion, some of it coming from Mr. Page himself. “Let’s put this out, and then we’ll see how it goes,” he hinted to Guitar World.

Don’t bet on it. Don’t even hope for it.

The magic of “Led Zeppelin DVD” and “How the West Was Won” won’t ever be captured again, and that’s OK.

This is enough.

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