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Friday, January 11, 2008

Led Zeppelin - The Reunion -- a review


Tickets for this long-awaited reunion had been issued by ballot, along with a personal passcode, in an attempt to beat the ticket touts. An estimated 20 million people registered to apply for tickets.
I lost out in the first ballot. But after Jimmy Page’s injury (unlucky for him but lucky for me), the returned tickets were reallocated, and at 6 o’clock in the evening one November night, an email told me I’d be one of the lucky 20 thousand people selected to see the giants of rock live at their reunion gig at the O2 Arena in London.
December 10th finally arrived. After a sleepless night, I head down to London from South Wales very early. This is a day to savour. I arranged a handful of interviews with some of the supporting artists for a Rock Show, which I present on UK radio. After spending half an hour driving around the maze that is London’s Dockland’s, I finally arrive at the O2 arena in Greenwich.
I walk, with my friend and Colleague Andrew Pritchard, heading straight for the Media Centre. Once inside, I bump into an old friend of mine, who works for the BBC’s TV news. David Sillito greets me warmly and introduces me to the rest of the handful of journalists, who have arrived backstage this early. Someone spots that Andrew and I are wearing the much desired ticket wristbands.
‘You’re going into the concert?’ asks a reporter from Reuters.
‘Yes’, I reply. ‘Aren’t you?’
The answer, it seems, is no. None of the reporters are going to be allowed inside the arena. They will have to watch on television inside the Media Centre. Above them are big signs warning “Do Not Film The Televisions or You Will Be Asked To Leave The Building.”
‘You lucky devils!’ mutters one journalist under his breath.
Ten minutes later, Andrew and I are heading backstage with the manager of Paul Rodgers. Security is tight. There must be at least 15 different backstage passes, but only one will get you into the area where the artists dressing rooms are based. But no pass - even with a United Nations escort - will get you into the Led Zeppelin backstage area. There’s more security there than the green zone in Baghdad!
Fortunately, Paul Rodgers manager has the right coloured pass to take us backstage and security has no choice but to let him through, though seem reluctant to allow me and Andrew through.
‘It’s OK they’re here with me,’ explains the manager and we’re allowed to cross the threshold. We walk down the drab, grey coloured corridor passing two dressing rooms. One has the sign ‘Chris Squire and Keith Emerson’ on it. The other dressing room is labeled “Simon Kirke and Alan White’. As Led Zeppelin have reformed to pay tribute to the memory of the late Atlantic Records boss, Armet Ertegun, the support acts include the ex-members of Yes, ELP and Bad Company who will play Fanfare For The Common man. Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings will also play a set, as will Paul Rodgers. Paolo Nuttini is also on the bill as the last act signed by Armet Ertegun.
As we briefly wait outside Paul Rodgers dressing room, we can hear Foreigner - another of the support acts - rehearsing just yards away on stage. The US rock act are playing their biggest hit, I Wanna Know What Love Is. We’re ushered inside, and the former Free singer is pleasantry itself. Incredibly friendly, very funny and full of funny anecdotes about his time with Atlantic Records, Bad Company and his time hanging out with the Led Zeppelin guys. Rodgers tells me that tonight he’ll play two songs. He do an acoustic version of the Bad Company song Seagull and then with Bill Wyman and the Rhythm Kings, he’ll sing a version of Free’s Alright Now.
The interview ends with Rodgers still in an extremely good mood. Effusive handshakes all round, while Rodgers lovely wife hands Andrew and I a tour T-Shirt each and a DVD of his recent tour.
My arranged interview with Free/Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke falls through as he is still stuck in traffic getting to the O2 arena. The interview will have to wait until another day.
Later when I eventually meet up with Simon Kirke, he tells me that the overbearing security guards made life unpleasant for most of the artists.
‘Backstage was not a good experience,’ said Simon. ‘The security at the O2 almost ruined the experience. But, hey, it was Zeppelin, wasn’t it? Those guys were so happy before the gig. I reckon they’ll tour again. They were so into it!’
Simon Kirke is one of the very few people to have played with Zeppelin on stage. During a rough patch in his life in 1980, his was invited by John Bonham to join the band to cheer him up. They were playing a few gigs in Germany. A second drum kit was set up on stage and Kirke joined them for the last two songs at the gig in Munich. It was Zeppelin’s last but one concert.
Zeppelin were only returning the favour, though. In 1975, Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones turned up at Bad Company gig in Birmingham.
‘I remember they joined us on stage,; says the drummer. ‘Paul Rodgers told the crowd “We’ve got a real treat for you now. We’re being joined onstage by a new band who might do quite well.’” Well, then Zeppelin walked onstage - only the biggest band in the world! - and the crowd went crazy. It was Birmingham, so it was like a home gig for them, because Robert and John Bonham lived nearby.’
Time to move into the Arena for the concert. The support acts came and went in a blur. In between the promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, came on and introduced film clips showing aspects of Armet Ertegun’s career.
All to soon, it was ten to nine and the arena went dark. It was time! They’re nearly here.
The cheers nearly lifted the roof off the O2. Then a video screen flickered to life and the set started with a movie clip from 'The Song Remains The Same' DVD. It showed an excerpt from an American news item telling of the day when Led Zeppelin broke The Beatles' attendance record for a gig in 1973 in California.
The young band were shown walking off their private jet and heading to the arena to play at the height of their powers.
Then the noise level went off the scale as the crowd spotted four silhouettes moving gingerly onto the stage. Moments later Jimmy Page was cranking out the notes to Good Times, Bad Times. Despite a little bit of feedback every now and again, the audience just seemed stunned. Stunned that they were actually watching THE Led Zeppelin in action.
Zeppelin’s tours in the past were always dominated by America. Since the end of their 1973 tour, Zeppelin had only played in their home country on 7 occasions. Five times in 1975 and twice in 1979. This was just their 8th appearance in the UK in 34 years!
Next up was Ramble On. Page was again on top form grinding out the slow bluesy riff. Jason Bonham found his feet very quickly and was the perfect substitute for his late father.
Three songs in and Zeppelin had nailed their sound. Like a band who’d been on the road for a year or two, the four had gelled into a tight musical unit. The Zeppelin of old were really back. To prove this, Robert Plant’s immaculate voice belted out the line:
‘Hey, Hey Mama, said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!’

Black Dog was a highlight of the show. When the band stopped and Plant sang the “Ah Ah” bits, the crowd sung it back with delight.
After In My Time Of Dying, Robert Plant suddenly announces that the band are going to do something they haven’t done in a long while.
‘We’re going to play a song we’ve never done live before!’ announces the golden haired singer. He looks slim and healthy, replete with fetching goatee beard. He’s reveling in the crowd’s response. They can’t believe their going to heard a song which the band have never tried live before.
The band’s choice: For Your Life from Presence. It zips along with Page and Plant, in particular, showing they still have the magic.
Before starting the next song Plant tells the crowd it was the band's attempt to sound like Robert Johnson's 'Terraplane Blues'. He then kicks the bottom of the microphone stand and adopts the ‘Rock God’ pose. But it’s here on Trampled Underfoot - and the next songs Nobody Fault But Mine and No Quarter - that John Paul Jones finally takes centre stage. His bass playing has been excellent but now on the keyboards he is absolutely note-for-note perfect.
The band are all wearing black, except for Page, who has discarded his suit jacket and is now in a dazzling white shirt.
Robert Plant’s vocal performance is awesome during Since I’ve Been Loving You. The only slightly shaky moment of the set comes when the singer seems a little off key and out of his stride for the verses of Dazed and Confused. Thankfully, Page’s central riff is spot-on. And in the middle of the song, the guitarist is surrounded by a shroud of laser light as he repeats his now famous solo, where he takes a violin bow to his guitar. This idea was given to him by the Man From U.N.C.L.E actor David McCallum, who studied classical music and is a friend of Page.
When the opening refrain of Stairway To Heaven rings out across the O2, the crowd goes crazy. The rendition is pure bliss. After the song Robert gazes skyward, with hands clasped, and proclaims, ‘Ahmet, we did it!’
The Song Remains The Same and Misty Mountain Hop are flawless, but the high point of the show has to be Kashmir. Plant introduces this one by declaring "We've got people from 50 countries here and this is the 51st.’
Kashmir is so perfect, its just like the band are miming to the record. They don’t put a foot wrong. Behind them the video screen goes into overdrive in blur of colour and shapes.
They leave the stage but return for two encores. Whole Lotta Love and Rock n Roll. Andrew and I look at each other, thinking the same thing. “I’ve seen Led Zeppelin live!” Words I never thought I’d ever say.
Despite their years apart, this was a polished performance full of energy and spirit. It’s undoubtedly the best concert I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to believe a youthful Led Zeppelin could have been any better than this. If they were, then they were indeed Gods of Rock!


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