Hotter than the Hindenburg: The Way Led Zeppelin Sound on a Celebration Day

Singer Robert Plant (left), bass player John Paul Jones (center), and guitarist Jimmy Page (right) reunited on stage for the first time in about two decades.

The lights go out in the theater and footage from days long gone appears – memories from a time when rock giants still existed. In the opening seconds of their new concert film Celebration Day, we watch Led Zeppelin hop on and off a private jet during their 1973 American tour. Now the band has returned to the silver screen for the first time in over 35 years, and the first thing we see establishes a direct connection to The Song Remains The Same.

Granted, to a degree, that first-ever movie by the legendary group was a messy, self-indulgent affair, but it was a sight to behold. The film showed a band at the peak of their powers. Roughly three and a half decades later, the question arises: can they do it again?

Led Zeppelin disbanded in late 1980, shortly after the sudden death of their drummer John Henry Bonham. The other members didn’t want to go on with anyone else banging the skins. While tons of other bands from the same era have reunited, vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, and bass player/keyboarder John Paul Jones have remained relatively steadfast on the issue. Apart from a rather disastrous 20-minute gig at the Live Aid festival 1985 with Phil Collins and Tony Thompson behind the kit and another performance as erratic for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary with Bonham’s son Jason on drums, the name Led Zeppelin has never been used for live concerts by any of the surviving members since.

True, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page reunited to cut two largely unsuccessful albums and embark on several tours in the 1990s, but they used their own names, not the band’s moniker. Otherwise, things remained silent in the land of Led Zeppelin until the releases of the live-triple album How The West Was Won and the best-selling DVD culled from archive material in 2003. Yet the much bigger surprise was when the two plus John Paul Jones announced that they would play a one-off show together with Jason Bonham behind the kit in London on 10 December 2007 to honor the late music executive Ahmet Ertegün who had once signed them to his label Atlantic Records in 1968.

Celebration Day is the result of that concert and, as such, a document of historic proportions. According to claims by the promoter, more than a million people tried to obtain one of the coveted tickets for the gig at London’s O2 Arena. Less than 16,000 of them were available. The selected few who got in, however, witnessed a show for the ages that was fortunately recorded for everyone else to see. Together with fellow British rock icons Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin play about the heaviest blues out there. In Celebration Day, the band once again demonstrates why. From the opening bars of their first-ever single “Good Times Bad Times,” it becomes obvious that they haven’t lost a step despite the long hiatus and their advanced age.

Now in his sixties, Robert Plant is naturally no banshee-like male siren anymore. He can’t hit the high notes the way he used to do, but as a vocalist, he has aged like fine wine. His constant reinvention as a singer and musician post-Zeppelin has simply been remarkable. It’s common knowledge that John Paul Jones is a really good bass player. At the same time, he’s also a criminally underrated keyboarder. In Celebration Day, he’s finally allowed to shine in that department. “Trampled Under Foot,” in particular, is his ivory-tinkling tour de force. Jimmy Page is still the maestro of Led Zeppelin, whether with a pick or a violin bow, and shows why he’s one of the true 1970s guitar gods. Of course, Jason Bonham is no ‘Bonzo,’ but he’s still the closest thing to his long-gone, hard-hitting dad.

The four musicians picked a rather nice setlist for their reunion, too. There are few qualms with the song selection in Celebration Day. During the running time of about two hours, we hear most of the band’s all-time classics, beginning with the heavy “Black Dog,” the intense “In My Time Of Dying,” the epic “No Quarter,” and the bluesy “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Dazed & Confused.” Of course, a Led Zeppelin show wouldn’t be complete without the legendary “Stairway To Heaven,” the exotic “Kashmir,” and the energetic “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock & Roll.” In Celebration Day, we’re even treated to a powerful live premiere. “For Your Life” from the underrated 1976 Presence album had never been performed live by Led Zeppelin prior to that concert, and it truly rocks. It goes to show that the band is still willing to take risks after all these years.

In fact, the concert covers all of the group’s studio records except for the latter-day In Through The Out Door and the posthumously released Coda. Personally, this very reviewer would’ve liked to see live renditions of the classic “Immigrant Song” as well as “How Many More Times” from their self-titled debut album and “The Ocean” from Houses Of The Holy and is still waiting for the onstage debut of the long-track “Carouselambra.” These are minor complaints, however, because Led Zeppelin chose a very good setlist that leaves little to be desired overall. Most fans would probably have been furious, had they left out one of the songs they selected to play at the show. As a ‘greatest hits’ show of sorts, it certainly does the trick, even – or maybe especially – after such a long time.

Speaking of complaints, Celebration Day looks very good for the majority of its running time. During the darker sequences, however, the generally impressive visuals turn coarse and pixelated. This phenomenon is likely owed to the concert being filmed with digital cameras from 2007 and under somewhat bad lighting conditions. The 2006 blockbuster Miami Vice by director Michael Mann, for instance, unfortunately suffers from similar problems. Yet that’s about the only negative about Celebration Day by director Dick Carruthers. On the whole, it rocks like hell. The sound mix by Jimmy Page and renowned producer Alan Moulder is simply awesome and transfers the show’s vibe and raw live energy from the stage directly into the movie theaters.

With the one-off concert at O2 Arena, Led Zeppelin have demonstrated again why they’re one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. In the past, they were accused of playing sloppy during their gigs several times. That may well have been the case in the drug-infested 1970s, but Robert Plant and company weren’t the only culprits back in the day. In Celebration Day, they prove all doubters wrong. They are legends, and it’s good to see that they haven’t forgotten how to rock. If this was the last time they ever played together, the triumphant 2007 show would definitely be the proper way to go out as Led Zeppelin as opposed to the ill-fated 1988 concert. Celebration Day will be released on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray Disc on 19 November 2012, and it’s well worth the money.

Tracklist:

1. “Good Times Bad Times”
2. “Ramble On”
3. “Black Dog”
4. “In My Time Of Dying”
5. “For Your Life”
6. “Trampled Under Foot”
7. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”
8. “No Quarter”
9. “Since I’ve Been Loving You”
10. “Dazed & Confused”
11. “Stairway To Heaven”
12. “The Song Remains The Same”
13. “Misty Mountain Hop”
14. “Kashmir”
15. “Whole Lotta Love”
16. “Rock & Roll”

Seen at UCI Kinowelt Friedrichshain, Berlin, Germany on 17 October 2012.

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