By Huntress Thompson
Last week, South Africans were the latest of the international audiences to behold the hotly anticipated Celebration Day, a live Led Zeppelin concert film.
Well, not just any Led Zeppelin concert. This one was fairly historic, as we reported a few months ago. The 18 000-strong crowd present on the night were mostly winners of a massive, international ticket lottery, selected from nearly 20 million hopefuls.
At the press screening last Wednesday, the audience was 50% scruffy young fans of the Zep¸ and 50% die-hard, grey-haired, seasoned fans who were bewildered by the fact that young fans exist. Part of this may have been older fans wondering if they looked then like we do now, and part of it might have been vaguely territorial – this was music they’d heard as a birthrite, which defined an era, a sensibility and a rebellion. They should hold some sort of claim to it by age alone, shouldn’t they? “You must be this tall to ride Zeppelin IV”? Of course, the type of person that Led Zeppelin appeals to is universal and ageless, and the young ones (though wet behind the ears) hate Justin Bieber as much as you hated disco, probably, so there is some sort of unifying solidarity and, a respectful, clear lineage that runs through all fans.
BTW: I’ve gone at uncomfortable length in the past about how what’s happened to Robert Plant’s face over the years is one of the worst crimes against humanity, so I won’t bore anyone on that score again here. Just be aware, going into the film, that his gorgeous face turned inside out around 1995.
My first impression of the film was one that seems to be fairly common across Celebration Day screenings internationally – the sound was wonky. I don’t know nearly enough about sound to diagnose exactly what the technical issue was, but like most audiences, I can point out the symptoms – the bass was too high, and the vocals were too soft.
This, predictably, is the only thing I can reasonably whinge about. The three original members of the band (Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) stalked the stage like sleek, elegant, black cats, and they are still everything you want them to be. On drums, the son of the late original drummer John Bonham, Jason sits looking like a roadie that lingered uncomfortably long after soundcheck. It wouldn’t be fair or meaningful to draw comparisons to the original, but he plays like a man possessed and was honestly thrilling to watch. Plant reveals later in the set that Jason Bonham has been drumming since he was four. He even made an appearance, at the age of eight, in Led Zeppelin’s other live concert film The Song Remains the Same, playing alongside his dad on a smaller drumkit.
It’s a fairly uncomfortable truth that three dudes from the sixty-plus set are now masters at making music that sounds, and has always sounded, like sex. Sexagenarians. During Black Dog, Jimmy Page a three-minute aural climax of frenetic blues mania, which is almost impossible to describe. This solo is pretty much the musical equivalent of an incubus, which finally slithers out under the door and back home to the lagoon, leaving you staring breathlessly at the woman next to you in the movie theatre going “What the fuck was that?”
On live DVDs, fans will be accustomed to seeing lengthy crowd shots of deliriously happy fans, and there are comparatively few of those in Celebration Day. Perhaps that’s because crowd shots show you reactions to mimic, in case the band doesn’t quite get you there themselves. Or perhaps (more likely) it’s because it allows you to imagine what it would have been like to be there, and to be watching it with the rest of the throngs. The thing is, that would have been an unnecessary waste of screen time. We get it. It’s been 40 years of stage decimation. We know what reactions to Led Zeppelin look like, and most of us haven’t heard a single song without imagining the reactions of all the millions of rock ‘n’ roll fans who’ve heard them and been changed by them before us. We’re all already in the crowd.
Instead of crowd shots, we get close up shots of the band so extreme that you can practically taste Page’s fret board. It is unrelenting. It’s nearly two hours of footage of four people, and four people only, swaggering, engaging and interfering brazenly with some aural witchcraft that we still don’t quite understand, forty years on.
It’s strictly stage shots except for during Stairway, when the crowd’s sea of phones and tablets lights itself, as the weathered Englishmen coax out one of the undisputed greatest rock songs of all time. The act of the crowd recording this is fairly idiotic, since it’s happening right in front of their faces, and since this DVD is available internationally on 19 November 2012.
The track listing is comprehensive and varied. Songs that make it onto live set lists tend to be songs with something in common, and when they’re all next to each other in a line up as they are in Celebration Day, audiences are given to spot a pattern that runs through them all. The pattern is: Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Solo | At Least Two Minutes of Mind Fuckage. This is unfailing.
Personally, Celebration Day reignited the hapless crush I’ve had on Jimmy Page since forever, previously aggravated by the 2009 film It Might Get Loud, and currently on overdrive. Midway through Dazed and Confused, the rest of the band disappears into the darkness and sporadic light shines on Page, alone on the stage. He pulls out a violin bow, to crowd hysteria. Almost 2 minutes later he emerges, and he throws it to the left of the stage and attacks the strings white-knuckled, which sets off a wailing match between him and Robert Plant, who has returned to the microphone. This isn’t even music anymore, it’s alchemy.
I try not to issue too many points for nostalgia, because nostalgia is subjective and therefore meaningless overall, but there is something to be said for heritage. Nostalgia keeps you buying a band’s records regardless of what they sound like now because at one point, they moved you. Heritage, on the other hand, is about tenure. It’s the weight a song or a band or an album build up over time because of the ways they move you again and again, just as strongly every time.
This is a serious concert film. It’s for listeners who’ve experienced Led Zeppelin’s music severely, listened reverently, and have spent some considerable length of trying to work out what exactly they’ve experienced, coming up short. I don’t know any Led Zeppelin fans who can’t relate to all of that, actually, so get your paws on this DVD as soon as you can.
Click for the full track listing and info.
Visit the official Led Zeppelin site for more.
In the vacuum between dark and light, Siouxsie Sioux and Emmylou Harris, Amelie and Travis Bickle, Huntress Thompson is an idiot lost, and reporting from the field. If you’re after irrational rants about cupcakes and Johnny Cash (and you probably aren’t), she’s grumpy, but she’s your girl.