The Return of Led Zeppelin

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Technically, the London show is much more than that. Proceeds go to the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, and the other acts on the bill – ex-Free and Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers, Pete Townshend, Foreigner, former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman and ginger-songwriter Paolo Nutini – were, like Led Zeppelin,  Atlantic artists who enjoyed long relationships with Ertegun.

Still, for the estimated 20 million people who applied for the 16,000 available tickets in an online lottery, December 10th is basically an impossible dream come true: a Led Zeppelin gig. And that one show has set off raging speculation about a subsequent tour. "I'm not saying it's gonna happen – I just don't know," says veteran New York promoter Ron Delsener. "But if they do fifty stadiums, 60,000 people a show, an average ticket price of $100, that's $300 million gross, up there with the Stones or U2."

Page, 63, his once-jet-black hair now a white shoulder-length blizzard, professes shock at the hysteria ignited by Zeppelin's surprising resurrection: "The way tickets went – that was totally unexpected." But from the start, he has been an astute, determined guardian of his band and its legacy, personally attending to all catalog matters and reissues. He produced the new two-CD anthology, Mothership (disclosure: I wrote an essay included in the package), and has overseen new DVD and soundtrack editions of Zeppelin's 1976 film, The Song Remains the Same. And when he speaks of Zeppelin, in the past or present tense, it is with a steely gleam in his eyes and a straight, sharp edge in his surprisingly soft voice. In rehearsals, Jason says, "Jimmy is very thorough. I can see him thinking, concentrating on what he wants to do, what he wants to achieve."

"What are my expectations for the show?" Page asks, repeating the question thoughtfully. "There was only one: that if we did it, we did it really well, because of the shambolic appearances in the past" – a reference to half-baked reunions at Live Aid in 1985 and a 1988 miniset, with Jason, at an Atlantic fortieth-anniversary concert. Jones complains that at Live Aid, "We had drummers who didn't know the songs" – Phil Collins and Chic's Tony Thompson. Jason accepts some of the blame for '88. "I took it for granted," he says. "I expected it and didn't do my homework."

This time, Page says firmly, "We had to be prepared and committed."  Zeppelin were told by the Ertegun-benefit organizers that they only had to do an hour. But Page says it was clear, after the first rehearsals in June and further practices in July, that an hour wasn't enough. The set list is now "100 minutes-plus, and it's not just the usual numbers – 'Whole Lotta Love,' 'Dazed and Confused' and 'No Quarter.'"

According to Plant, Zeppelin spent their second and third days together working on "For Your Life," a never-played-live track from their 1976 album, Presence. "Then we jettisoned it – but that was the mood of the thing," he says, nursing a cold in his manager's North London office. At fifty-nine, with a trimmed gray beard and a mix of silver and lingering blond in his long mane, he looks like an elder-chieftain version of the twenty-year-old Viking who first came to America with Zeppelin in December 1968. Even sitting on a sofa, his booming voice and confident body language radiate a conqueror's poise.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Led Zeppelin

"There was almost too much mutual respect at first," he continues, "but that soon went. John Paul's eyebrows kept going up and down, and there was that ironic smile. I knew we were back at where we left off with [1979's] In Through the Out Door." Plant quickly corrects himself. "No, we'd progressed even further back."

"There was one song – I couldn't remember what I played on it," Jones, 61, says one afternoon over tea, speaking in a lilting near-whisper spiked with jolts of extra-dry humor (he calls his twelve years in Zeppelin "the longest steady job I ever had"). "I said, 'Jim, do you remember what you played on this?' He went, 'No, why is that?' Then we realized it was because we haven't played it onstage before." Fortunately, Jason has an encyclopedic recall of every live bootleg and studio outtake. "When you think, 'How should we segue into this part?'" Jones says, "Jason will go, 'In 1971, you did it this way, and in 1973, at so-and-so auditorium, you did it this way into that.'"

"Jason knows the numbers," Page says. "But not only that, he understands them. That makes a lot of difference."

"That's the second main reason for doing this, for me," Plant explains. "When Jason was younger and more juvenile, he thought [playing in Zeppelin] was a hereditary situation." Jason concedes that he and Plant "had our ups and downs – before my sobriety, when I was still drinking and partying."

"But now," Plant contends, "Jason knows that not only is he the right guy for this – with his enthusiasm and prowess, he's changing it."

Jones and Plant are changed men in their own right. In 2004, on a whim, Jones attended a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. "I met this great community of musicians, all Zeppelin fans," he says, still slightly shocked, "and ended up playing this old-time music." He recently produced an album for the female bluegrass quartet Uncle Earl; the night before this interview, he played mandolin with them at a club in London.

Plant has been making solo records since 1982, plays his own Indian and North African redesigns of Zeppelin songs in concert and has a new hit album in Raising Sand, a sublime Delta-blues and gothic-country collaboration with singer-fiddler Alison Krauss. Last year, right after the Nashville sessions for that record, I asked Plant the usual Zeppelin-reunion question. "I would love to work with him again," he said of Page, "so long as it's not a big deal – so long as it's real."

Reminded of that quote, Plant shrugs at the suggestion that the reunion is, in fact, a very big deal. "No," he says. The first rehearsals "were no big deal. They were just really good." And the part that's real now? "What happens in that room when there's nobody about has been, at times, as good as it ever was.

"I never wanted to do it," he confesses. "Now I want to do nothing else. How about that?"

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