What has been the Achilles’ heel in Led Zeppelin’s otherwise formidable catalog? The lack of a killer live album — something on par with the Who’s Live at Leeds or the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The soundtrack for Zep’s 1976 concert documentary, The Song Remains the Same, doesn’t hold up without the movie’s trippy visuals, and 1997’s BBC Sessions captures the band on its ascent rather than at its peak.
The wait is over. How the West Was Won is a three-CD set recorded during a 1972 California swing, and it captures Zep in prime swagger, fresh off their masterpiece, Led Zeppelin IV, with Houses of the Holy just around the corner.
Jimmy Page was the quartet’s riff architect and production guru, but onstage his frayed, frazzled guitar playing dispenses with such studio niceties as precision and restraint. It’s thrilling to hear him strut his fine, flamboyant stuff on “Heartbreaker,” with a hint of “Greensleeves” briefly sending up the carnage. He shifts from violin-bow moans to James Brown-inspired chicken-scratch funk on the twenty-five-minute “Dazed and Confused” and flails nearly out of control on a wickedly ramshackle “Rock and Roll.” Robert Plant uses his voice like a sledgehammer, a saxophone and an air-raid siren, while channeling his heroes — everyone from John Lee Hooker to Gene Pitney — on “Whole Lotta Love.” But the flower child within emerges on an acoustic “Going to California,” embroidered by John Paul Jones’ mandolin. If Jones — bassist, keyboardist and sonic gap-filler — is the band’s glue, drummer John Bonham is its loaded gun. Save for “Moby Dick” — it is, after all, a nineteen-minute drum solo — Bonham makes each of his percussion stampedes swing like a wrecking ball. He transforms the mystic reverie of “Over the Hills and Far Away” and the country blues of Willie Dixon’s “Bring It On Home” into misty-mountain-hop metal. For those pondering the possibility of a Led Zeppelin reunion, here’s the last word on why it can’t happen: In the studio, Page and Jones may have been Zep’s guiding forces and Plant the mighty mouthpiece, but onstage, no one brought down the hammer of the gods like Bonham.