celebration day – led zeppelin live at the o2 arena – ahmet ertegun tribute concert

as a long-time fan of the mighty led zeppelin, I felt I owed it to myself to see how the band did after ageing ever so slightly.

the best way to do this nowadays is probably to go see “celebration day” – the film of the o2 arena show in london, the ahmet ertegun tribute concert – so last sunday, that’s what we did.  we could have waited for the DVD, but for some reason, I liked the idea of it being shown in a theatre, as if the ghost of the band was going on the road for one more tour of britain…

and to be truthful, also, to compare how they play in the film, with my own distant internal memories, of how they played “back in the day”.  in fact, the very, very first concert I ever went to, was led zeppelin at the san diego sports arena, in may 1973.  to this day, it’s still the loudest show I’ve ever been too, but also, one of the best rock shows I’ve ever been to, if I am honest.

I “grew up” with three huge guitar influences: hendrix, clapton, page.  this was the beginning of the “rock” phase of my teenage guitar playing years, and I dedicated myself to learning everything I could from these three – that funny riff in cream’s “politician”, that great high speed 8 note/7 note riff in e major, and descending solo, near the end of page’s masterpiece, “dazed and confused”, the odd almost middle eastern sounding lead solo of hendrix’ “purple haze” – all of these were studied and played and studied more and played…

after my starting point in music, the beatles, took up the time from when I was 9 until I was 13, when I reached that age – that’s where my real education in guitar started, at age 13, and for a couple of years, hendrixclaptonpage was really all there was to me.  I didn’t really “need” more – because these three were all deeply rooted in the blues (although eventually, over time, others DID begin to find their way in to the picture – billy gibbons, johnny winter, duane allman…).

I spent hours and hours and hours dissecting every solo and sound I possibly could.  with the most primitive effects known to man, I tried to make my guitar sound like that of my heroes.  a second-hand arbiter fuzz face, a vox wah-wah, a tape echoplex – that was about it, that’s all you had, and all you really needed.

I learned huge chunks of “led zeppelin I” by heart.  I struggled to emulate the beautiful blues in c minor that is “since I’ve been loving you” from the third album.  also from that album, the band I was in at the time, “pyramid” – well, we did a lot of unusual zeppelin covers, from “tangerine” on up to very, very complex works like “ten years gone” (boy did I ever struggle to learn those solos!) as well as (but not limited to) “good times, bad times”, “dazed and confused” or “the rover”.

later, in my next rock band (name unknown!), we played things like “the ocean” which is a hugely fun zeppelin song to play…

from “led zeppelin I”, after months of work, I could pretty much play the whole album from heart (as well as any 15 year old boy could play the solos of a guitarist he really, really admired!) – especially the lead solos from “good times, bad times” and “dazed and confused” – those were my specialities – I would take a crack at “communication breakdown” or “how many more times” sure enough, but “good times” and “dazed and confused” – now THOSE were the page solos that I wanted to understand and be able to play.

I think I did realise, even then, that page’s genius was a flawed genius, and in seeing this film yesterday (a very limited run of exactly two showings in our local stirling theatre) I think I can now understand some of the reasons why.

certainly, I could tell that in live performance, in the 70s, that page was a little bit…erratic.  sometimes, he was amazing, sometimes, he seemed quite…lost. or maybe “sloppy” is the word I don’t quite want to say.  when compared to my other two early heroes – well, hendrix also had problems in live performance, while clapton seemed to have it much more together as far as live performance went.

in the studio – where time is no object – page’s work with led zeppelin just got better and better (at least, until bonham’s death – after which, the band really just lost all heart – and who could blame them?) – in the studio, as always, jimmy was the master.

so why was there this slight edge of sloppiness in live performance?  I was fortunate enough to see the band play three times back in the day; once, my first concert ever in 1973, and then twice in one week, back in 1975.  and – they were amazing live, loud, fun, brilliant – fantastic.

fast forward then to the concert at the o2, so many years later – and even worn with time, they still sound great.  do not get me wrong – if you love led zeppelin – you will enjoy this film.

after my two years of almost exclusive hendrix / clapton / page listening and learning, as I matured, I started listening to more capable guitarists: zappa / fripp / belew became the new triumvirate, and prog, the new amazing music to strive towards….

years later again, I had a taste of the discipline of guitar craft, which drew attention to a lot of, curiously, jimmy page like habits of my own.  so all that prepared me for the strange but obvious relevation, the obvious reason why jimmy page is a little bit erratic in live performance:

he plays with just three fingers.

only once during the entire film (during which, there are a lot of great close ups of the fret work, which is brilliant!) did I see him use his fourth finger, and I think that was almost by accident.

I watched him playing these amazing solos, that I had grown up with and loved, and all those amazing heavy riffs – with three fingers.  I also feel that this is the same problem that hampers todd rundgren – who also, if you watch the films, seems to play mostly with three fingers.

one quarter of your vocabulary – gone. the other problem that adds to the problem is…facial expressions.  in guitar craft, this was identified for me as an issue – the fact that I was putting so much energy into pulling “rock and roll” faces, contorting my jaws and so on – that there was little energy left to play the guitar well.  I actually agree with this – it really can detract from your ability to concentrate.

and the problem for mr. page, to my mind was – I thought, my god, I would struggle to play ANY of those solos, if I were forbidden the use of my fourth finger.  some of the solos were incredibly awkward, with page barely able to hit the notes (because he was running out of fingers!) – because…he was only using three of his four fingers to fret!

it was maddening to watch, because I could see that he was making it far more difficult than it needs to be – if he had worked out the fingering using all four fingers – playing those solos, and those riffs – would have been much much easier to play! – both at the o2, and in his entire career as a guitarist…

I would say the same for todd, too, who is a brilliant guitarist; an absolute wizard in the studio – but live – and I’ve seen him many, many times – he can be all over the place – although his facial expression problems are nothing as bad as jimmy page’s are.

in hindsight, everything is 20/20, and in a way, who cares if they only play with three fingers – they are still great guitarists, playing great material, awesome riffs and awe-inspiring solos – and some of page’s solos, both in the 70s and at this one-off benefit concert for ahmet ertegun – were absolutely amazing

however, interestingly, a lot of the interesting things about page’s style that attracted me as a 15-year old guitarist – now, at the o2 concert, seemed to me to be the biggest weaknesses!  for example – the violin bow bit in “dazed and confused” – I loved that when I was a teenager, and yes, I had a violin bow, and I played that solo – and I played versions of the solo inspired from hearing live led zeppelin recordings – so I could play it studio or live – that bit seemed so clever and so inspired.

at the o2, it just sounded…lame.  pointless.  not inspiring, not clever, it just didn’t sound that good!  and I used to love that back in the day…

another example of this – is the wild theremin solo during “whole lotta love”.  again – if you just listened – it didn’t sound that good.  it looks great – but it doesn’t actually work as music. back in the day, a visual and sonic highlight – now, a sonic disaster that still looks fairly cool – but musically void.

I hope this means that I have matured, that these somewhat…sensational, theatrical elements just don’t have the impact on me that they used to.  that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them – I just didn’t enjoy them as much as I used to…

I don’t want to give the impression that the film is bad.  quite the contrary.

it’s really quite amazing, although I do believe I could detect a fair amount of re-amping (i.e. additional effects added to parts of or to entire guitar solos after the fact – for example, when page was 20 feet from the pedal board, suddenly, his guitar “grew” a really detuned chorus…hmmm…) going on in page’s solos, and possibly, additional effects for plant’s voice too.  I hope I am wrong, but the three-year delay (or however long it was) from performance to film release, makes me think that page took some time to…uh…”improve” the sound of the band.

as far as john paul jones and jason bonham go – in my opinion, there was no “re”-anything needed; bonham is so like his dad it’s uncanny, and his playing is simply superb.  rock steady when it’s supposed to be, on up to a “keith moon-like” blur of rolling, cymbal crashing mayhem/madman/insanity…

powerful. accurate. a rock drummer to die for – and the only possible “replacement” for bonzo.

and jason has another very, very useful skill in a band that traditionally, only really had one singer – he can sing.  on a couple of numbers, he would don his headset, and without missing a beat, he would sing perfect harmony to robert plant’s lead vocals.  this made a huge, huge difference to the sound of those songs, and was a crucial element in “misty mountain hop” – a great tune, and the version here, with bonham junior on perfect john bonham drums and backing vocals – is a scorcher.  “what…what do you think I saw??”

jason’s singing added a whole new dimension to led zeppelin live – a led zeppelin that now suddenly has “vocal harmony” on stage!!!  sure, I know that jason’s dad did sing on “the ocean” and maybe on other live pieces, but jason was really doing the whole nine yards – impossibly difficult drum part, AND harmonising with robert plant – at once – live – no problem.

of course, though, it’s john paul jones who is, as has been said, “the revelation here” – and if you are not familiar with just how capable he is – you need to see him here – playing clavinet and bass pedals (yes, with his feet – a la hugh banton of van der graaf generator – those two are the only two who can use all four limbs to be both keyboardist and bassist – remarkable!) on “trampled underfoot” or electric piano and bass pedals on “no quarter” or mellotron and bass pedals on “kashmir”…

he’s calm, he’s assured – and he is simply, a brilliant musician.  his bass playing is absolutely assured, and he even takes a turn at fretless bass – no problem.  as we’ve seen from his solo career, too – the man can play anything.

as for the curly-haired lead singer – well, he sounds fuckin’ great.  he doesn’t try for the high notes so much (wisely) as finds another melody that works just as well. this is one of the best robert plant performances of any kind that I have ever seen, and he totally reinvents these stage-worn songs – I even enjoyed “stairway to heaven” primarily because robert sang it so beautifully here.  and I was totally burned out on “stairway” – from too much radio play back in the day – but this time, I actually almost enjoyed it again – and, nice to watch jimmy have a go at the “how fast can I switch between 12 string and 6 string” on his beautiful double necked gibson sg.  sigh.

the answer? pretty damn fast.

just prior to the big, final guitar solo, he’s playing the 12 string, and he plays a c major chord; then a c major chord with a b in the bass…and then, the song requires that on the next beat, that he hit the first note of the guitar solo – so he literally slams his arm down across the switch and hits that note on the 6 string RIGHT bang on time – I was really actually very impressed, because in the old “song remains the same version” – he played a few bars of chordal jamming BEFORE going to the solo, to give him time to switch – but not now, now, he plays it LIKE THE RECORD – and nails it – somehow.  and I really do love that final solo, it just rocks – I don’t think I enjoy any other version of the somewhat careworn “a minor, g major, f major” chord progression more – it’s in so, so many songs, from “all along the watchtower” all the way to “stairway to heaven” – but in the latter, it just rules.

so I found myself enjoying songs that I thought I disliked or was very tired of, and of the songs I liked, well, they did a LOT of those, and they did a lot of those…very, very well indeed.

I think that the secret of led zeppelin, well, not the secret maybe, but one of the main factors that makes this somewhat unlikely quartet “work” – is simply that the rhythm section are so tight, and so talented (don’t forget that john paul jones was the mature, “older” studio musician, producer and arranger even before page was, back “in the day”) that if robert or jimmy wander off-course a bit (and, we have to admit it, they sometimes do…) that – it doesn’t matter, because that anchor – that bass – those amazing bass drum pedals, those pounding toms – is rock solid.

not that robert or jimmy strayed far from the plot in this film, well, sometimes, jimmy absolutely did, to be honest, but he always ended up back where he belonged in the end.  they rehearsed for six weeks for one show (well, that’s what plant seems to be intimating in the film, anyway) which is quite a bit, really – but I think it still came down to skill, experience and professionalism more than anything else – there are bits of zeppelin songs that are almost entirely formless, and I could see that they had to work at cues, they had to figure out how to “climb back in” from that musical limb that they had crawled out on…

as far as the choice of material, mostly, it’s great, personally, I could do without “in my time of dying” because I’ve never really cared for it, so that might be the low point (and, if I am entirely honest, I don’t think that page on slide guitar really convinces – he’s not the best slide player in the world), but otherwise, the song selection was really good, a great variety of songs from just about every album, at least the first six albums – and there were some really important pieces of music in there too – such as “the song remains the same” which is a huge highlight for me personally, a very proggy moment for zep, but played brilliantly here (page is on fire, and the solos are almost incendiary – fast, exciting, and powerful – great 12 string – great vocal from robert – a fantastic performance)  – as well as rockers like “trampled underfoot”, “misty mountain hop”, “black dog”, and the final encore, of course, “rock and roll” – all those great songs from all those great albums…it was really quite something.

and yes, a really quite good version of “since I’ve been loving you” as well, with the amazing john paul jones on mock hammond b3 organ – and page, erratic but beautiful on that fabulous lead guitar part…

the fact that the final encore was “rock and roll”, it just strikes me now, really brings me full circle with my led zeppelin experience, because that was the FIRST song they played when I saw them at my first concert in 1973!!! over those 35 plus years, it had made it’s way from the start of the set to the end of the set – which kind of parallels my own journey with this amazing, amazing – but ever-so-slightly – erratic band.

if you are lucky like me, and you did see them in the 70s  – then this is a chance to see them fully mature, in some ways, more at the height of their powers when they were…at the height of their powers!

I love them, my partner and I both really, really enjoyed the film – we are both big fans of the band, and we both thought the film much, much better than we expected – and, it’s a full two hours + concert, so you can sit back and finally “see” – and hear – led zeppelin – loud and clear – if you missed them the first time around, having a really good go at their legacy of remarkable music – and what a catalogue it is – 10 amazing albums, and so, so many great songs – including some surprises…

for example, I never really used to care much for “ramble on” (I am not, in general, a big fan of led zeppelin II, if truth be told) but after the great opener, “good times, bad times” they then played a version of “ramble on” that I thoroughly enjoyed (which included a little bit of “what is and what should never be” at the end) – it worked really, really well live.

another song I didn’t think I would enjoy – but really did – was “nobody’s fault but mine” – with a much improved lead vocal, and some very, very tight riffing on that amazing high speed riff – with page, john paul jones, and bonham all working together in perfect harmony, a riffing monster machine – and page looking happy – reasonably healthy.

that jimmy page can play those solos with just three fingers is nothing short of amazing, I guess he never wanted to take the time to relearn how to play with four fingers – if I am honest, I mostly played with three fingers for my first 17 years of playing – and then, I learned how.  and now, I can’t imagine trying to play without all four fingers – I am not sure I can do it.  I would have to force myself NOT to use my fourth finger – like intentionally tying one hand behind your back before entering the fray…

but then, I guess if you are a songwriter and composer of the ability of a jimmy page or a todd rundgren, and, you can spend endless hours in the studio perfecting just the right lead solo for your sonic masterpiece – that it doesn’t REALLY matter if you play with three fingers.  but – think how good these guitarists might be if they DID play with four…

as writers, and in the studio, I don’t find much wrong with anything either guitarist has done (well, ahem, there are a few todd albums I could do without – TR-i, anyone??) – but live, well, it’s more difficult, so it was a bit of a shock to realise – that the reason that there is something “odd” about the way page looks when he plays – ah, so THAT is why! – when I noticed that he only uses three fingers on his fretting hand, to play the guitar during the film.  just like todd – and probably a fair number of other very accomplished guitarists, too…

but if you didn’t watch – you might not have known – because he PLAYS the solos, he makes it through – and it sounds good, most of the time.  some of the guitar solos sort of…fizzled out, or went nowhere a bit – but not often, and then, usually followed by something really beautiful or amazing – so I could forgive him a lot.

another really strong performance was “kashmir” – again, just being able to watch what john paul jones is doing – playing two keyboards, one with each hand, and bass with his feet – really is a revelation.  and you tend to forget – this music, at the time, well, there was nothing on earth quite like “kashmir” (and really, there never has been since!) – and as a song, it’s really stood the test of time – and the o2 performance is a brilliant one – perhaps one of the film’s very best moments.

for musicians aspiring to play the works of led zeppelin, this is a GREAT film, because there are lots and lots and LOTS of the kind of close-ups that rarely appear in films of bands – that you always wish were there so you could “see how they do it” – well, in this film – you can.

for example, I learned that I am not playing the piano part of “no quarter” quite right – so when I get the DVD, I can sit down and “fix it” – and by the way, that’s another real highlight, a fantastic rendition of a great song from a great album – and of course, it’s john paul jones at the helm completely, with jimmy doing his level best to play the very, very difficult lead guitar parts. one of plant’s best vocals of the show – when they hit that b flat ninth chord, and then move up to the e flat – I just get the shivers, what a beautiful chord progression…

“they’re wearing steel that’s bright and true…to build a dream for me and you”…

 

I recommend this film highly to all fans of led zeppelin, OK, they are not quite as young as they were the first time I saw them play, it is a shock to see jimmy page with pure snowy white hair – but given the lives they’ve led, they have aged reasonably well – and this concert still packs one hell of a punch (despite just how much time has passed since 1969!) – it rocks – and it’s a great part of the led zeppelin legacy, and I for one, am really glad that they got together to do this before it was too late.

if for nothing else, you owe it to yourself to see the john paul jones / jason bonham team at work, or rather, hear them – they are just nothing short of remarkable, and I knew that jason bonham was a good, good drummer, who knew his dad’s repertoire – but I was wrong about that – jason bonham is an amazing drummer, who knows his dad’s repertoire inside and out, and has actually built on it, added to it, added in his own personality – new rolls have appeared, new timings, new cymbal smacks – he’s taken his dad’s already amazing drum parts, modernised them a little, jason-a-fied them a lot – and it just rocks – and john paul john’s on the bass – he’s just sublime, he is effortless, and some of his bass parts are really, really tricky.

really though – all four of them sound great!  they really do – robert’s voice is in fine form, it’s not tired, or cracked, or strange – it’s just good – and his singing, his sense of melody is so much more mature and beautiful, it’s really good.  jimmy plays some blindingly good and very cool guitar, and it’s great to “see” these solos at long last – of course, I’ve seen some of them, I KNOW some of them, but you get really good close ups of a lot of parts that you haven’t “seen” before – and the rhythm section – well, we already know about them.

 

“celebration day” – which, ironically, they do not play at this concert (in fact, only one track from led zeppelin III makes it into the set list, “since I’ve been loving you”, which is such a shame – and – sadly – no acoustic set at all) is a really beautifully shot, clear and great-sounding record of an extraordinary concert – be there!

 

a fantastic way to spend a lazy sunday afternoon…

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