For the entire night, the party line was that there was absolutely no way that Jimmy Page was going to perform. No matter that this event, a benefit show held Thursday at Seattle's Experience Music Project Museum, was built to honor the guitarist; Page's people insisted that he wasn't going to take part in the festivities.
Then, as the night was winding to a close, Page, wearing all black and with his white hair pulled back into a small ponytail, scurried on stage and was handed a shiny Gibson Les Paul. And before anyone could catch their breath, he and the rest of the all-star lineup of musicians on hand launched into a disorganized but exultant version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."
The vocals by Paul Rodgers (Page's old bandmate in the Firm), Alice in Chains singer William Duvall and John Hogg were muffled and all over the place, and Page's soloing was shaggy and tentative. Perfection wasn't the point. When eight guitarists, including Soundgarden's Kim Thayil and Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, are pounding out that familiar boogie-blues riff at jet-engine levels of volume, no amount of gaffes were going to clean the smile from a spectator's face.
The biggest grin of the night belonged to Page. There to receive the EMP Founders Award, an honor bestowed in the past on artists such as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart and Jackson Browne, and then sit in the audience while a cadre of Seattle's finest musicians and a smattering of special guests ran through classics from throughout his five decades as an artist and producer, he never stopped beaming the whole night.
Some of that joy was certainly to do with the fact that the evening was also a successful fundraiser for the museum's youth-arts education efforts, but it was most likely a feeling of pride at watching how a successive generation of musicians expanded upon the mix of psychedelic rock, proto-metal and electric blues that he and his Led Zeppelin bandmates conjured up. As he said in his acceptance speech, it went beyond "the spark to be able to play and make that into a career. You need to pass the baton to the young people."
The players and singers that were brought to EMP last night to reflect Page's greatness back to him were, by and large, part of an era of musicians who carried that baton. The house band featured a rhythm section made up of former (and maybe future) Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan and ex–Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and the other cast of characters came mostly from that same Eighties/Nineties era.
Guitarist Rich Robinson, whose band the Black Crowes once toured with Page in the early 2000s, put his own twist on the familiar riffs of "Custard Pie" and "Ten Years Gone," before laying into an acid-dripping solo on "Dazed and Confused." That dark spirit didn't get invoked again until Thayil was brought out to calmly tear his way through "Immigrant Song" and a particularly beastly version of "Out on the Tiles," also featuring Nirvana's Krist Novoselic.
The night also took some pleasant diversions into Page's pre- and post-Zeppelin career. Nielsen shuffled on stage to add some tasty psych-rock weirdness to a run-through of "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," a 1966 single originally recorded by the Yardbirds. And Rodgers proved a still-agile showman and vocalist as he took the band (joined as well by Tesla bassist Brian Wheat) on a tour through two tracks from the Firm's 1985 self-titled album.
There was a small nagging feeling that the show, as great as it was, could have been even better. Apparently the current touring schedules for many of the artists that EMP had on their long list of hopeful participants conflicted with the date of the tribute. If you know anything of the history of Seattle music, it was pretty easy to pick out the glaring absences. One of the guitarists most indebted to Page's fluid playing and sound, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready, only appeared via a small video testimonial. The same went for Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, the sisters who reduced Robert Plant to tears with their rendition of "Stairway to Heaven" at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. It also needs to be said that theirs were the only female voices heard all night long (Lucinda Williams was booked to perform, but she backed out at the last minute).
Apart from the overemphasis on Y chromosomes, though, those quibbles are the result of after-the-fact analysis. No, it wasn't a perfect evening. None of the songs went off flawlessly, with dropped notes and the occasional limp solo popping up throughout. (And it was particularly charming watching the band struggle with the rhythmically jagged "Four Sticks.") But those minor flaws were easily overshadowed by the sheer enthusiasm and visible bliss of the people onstage and completely outshined by Page's beatific smile.
[With Rich Robinson and John Hogg]
"Ten Years Gone"
"Dazed and Confused"
[With Jerry Cantrell and William Duvall]
"When the Levee Breaks"
"Living Loving Maid (She's Just a Woman)"
"How Many More Times"
[With Kim Thayil and Duvall]
[With Thayil, Hogg and Krist Novoselic]
"Out on the Tiles"
[With Hogg and Rick Nielsen]
"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago"
[With Paul Rodgers and Brian Wheat]
[With all of the above, Jimmy Page and Paul Allen]
"Rock and Roll"