For the second encore of their first full concert in twenty-seven years, at London’s O2 arena last night, Led Zeppelin tore into “Rock and Roll,” from their untitled fourth album, with a joyful vengeance. As drummer Jason Bonham hammered with the ghostly precision and ferocity of his late father, guitarist Jimmy Page fired dirty chunks of Chuck Berry and bassist John Paul Jones kept iron time with familiar reserve, singer Robert Plant sang the most obvious words of the night: “Been a long time since I rock and rolled.” Overhead, images of a much younger Zeppelin, in concert during the early and mid-Seventies, flashed on a huge digital-video screen. In those films, Led Zeppelin were the biggest, loudest and most cocksure band in rock. Jimmy Page’s now snow-white hair was still jet black; Robert Plant was a golden god, not yet a Viking elder, and the late John Bonham — whose death in 1980 abruptly ended Zeppelin’s reign — still ruled the engine room.
But the band that played underneath those memories last night was not the one that misfired at Live Aid in 1985 or again in New York in 1988. This one was rehearsed, ready and out to kill. This band was Led Zeppelin in every way.
Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham the Younger opened their two-hour show with the confident wit and colossal nerve of “Good Times Bad Times,” the first song on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. Even before Plant opened his mouth, the original fury — a surprisingly lean, dub-like crossfire of cannon-shot chords, frantic, gulping bass runs and polyrhythmic swagger — was in order and in force. “In the days of my youth/I was told what it means to be a man,” Plant sang, in the slightly lower register of someone who gives those lessons now. It was an appropriate effect, too — an admission of age delivered with feral pride — on a night dedicated to the memory of Zeppelin’s late friend and mentor, Atlantic Records’ co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. (Proceeds from ticket sales will go to music scholarships, created in Ertegun’s name, at schools in New York, England and his native Turkey.) Earlier, a quote from Ertegun, who died in 2006 at age eighty-three, hung from banners at the sides of the stage: “It is a great life, this life of music.” Zeppelin honored that sentiment by playing like a band renewed, not merely reunited.
You could see the pleasure — in the way Plant kicked at the base of his mike stand in “Ramble On,” sending it in an arc over his head ’72-style, and in the big grin on Page’s face, blown up on the screen, as Bonham flew into the climactic drum thunder of “Black Dog.” For much of the show, even with a full, wide stage to themselves, Page, Plant and Jones stood in tight formation at the foot of the drum riser, often facing Jason, as if they were still in rehearsal. “I just want to have fun!” Plant barked at one point, as the band swerved from the extended, frenzied mid-section of “In My Time of Dying” back into the song’s blues-march backbone.
Zeppelin did not walk or waltz through any of tonight’s sixteen songs. You could hear the care, the weeks of practice that started back in June, in the live debut of “For Your Life” from the 1976 album Presence, a song which, according to Plant in our recent cover story, the band tried in the first rehearsals but dropped after two days. Obviously, there was no staying away from its eccentric oceanic chop. There was no getting away from the warhorses either. “No Quarter” came with the obligatory dry ice. “There are certain things we had to do — this is one of them,” Plant said, almost in apology, introducing “Dazed and Confused.” Page was soon back in ancient ritual — pulling long wah-wah groans from his Gibson Les Paul with a violin bow under a rotating steeple of green-laser beams.
More impressive, though, was the fresh tension in the song’s slow-drag sections as Page, Jones and Bonham pulled at the tempo, heightening the expectation between Page’s bent-note growls and Bonham’s thunder-crack rolls with extra delay. “Stairway to Heaven” was also not quite its over-familiar self, and refreshing for it, Page finger-picking the opening motif and hitting the ringing twelve-string chords with a relaxed, folk-rock grace, echoing Plant’s thousand-yard stare as he sang “And it makes me wonder …” The inevitable “Whole Lotta Love,” the first encore, was almost identical to the second-album script except for a short, tantalizing passage of raw-blues argument after the whooping-theremin blowout — no drums, no bass, just Plant and Page’s guitar snapping at each other like junkyard dogs.
Any doubts about Plant’s ability to still hit the high notes, his willingness to go stratospheric, was obliterated at the right, dramatic points in “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Kashmir.” Jones and Bonham locked in like family. And Page was a continual shock on guitar, mostly because he has played so little in public for the past decade. At sixty-three, Page is undiminished in his sorcerer’s mix of reckless ferocity — stammering runs, strangled howls, granite-block chords — and guitar-army wow. He recreated the harmonized-lick break in “Ramble On” with a sly blend of phasing and natural glide, and evoked the riff-orchestra swoop of “The Song Remains the Same” with a sustained rain of twelve-string harmonics. It was also clear why Page’s solo career has been one of fits and starts. In Led Zeppelin, Page built the perfect beast for his fury and ambitions. Last night, he cut and slashed against Jones’ percolating clavinet in “Trampled Underfoot” like an enraged butcher, and matched Plant’s hairpin cries in the field-holler passages of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” with a devils’ choir of distortion.
At times, Zeppelin seemed to amaze themselves. “Spectacular!” crowed Plant, turning to Bonham with pride at the end of “Rock and Roll.” As the words “Led Zeppelin” filled the back screen, before the band left the stage for good, Bonham dropped to his knees and bowed, as if to say “I’m not worthy,” In fact, he was, in spades, pushing his elders — hard — in the circle dance “Misty Mountain Hop” and the steady, exotic ascension of “Kashmir.”
It is only fair to point out that there were other performers on the bill, including Foreigner, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and members of Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer — all squeezed into an hour’s potpourri to pay tribute to Ertegun and his reign at Atlantic, with varying historic accuracy. Rodgers got the first, major ovation of the night, but with a version of his 1969 hit with Free, “All Right Now.” Singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini — the youngest featured act by about twenty-five years — did his best with “Mess Around,” written by Ertegun for Ray Charles, then followed it with “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” a 1966 hit for Cher, an Atlantic artist, but on another label. Stranger still, Nutini sang it with a raspy, trilling effect that eerily called to mind a late-Sixties cover of the song by British singer Terry Reid — best known now for being the guy who turned down Page’s offer to be in Zeppelin and suggested Plant instead.
It is also important to note that Zeppelin left the building wiithout making any reference to their future together, if there is one — no “See you next year!” or “Until next time . . .” The only message they left behind was, “We were the best — and still are.”
The waiting begins again.