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Songs That Evoke Both Age and Eternal Youth (P&P concert review)


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Copyright New York Times Company Jul 18, 1998

by Ann Powers

A transformation enveloped the crowd leaving Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's show at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. As fans filed out, they let forth waves of booming cheers as spooky as the imaginary sounds made by mutating monsters or supermen. The tenebrous fury of Led Zeppelin, which Mr. Page and Mr. Plant have been reanimating since 1995, awakened some dormant urge within these people. The duo's weird magic still works.

Catharsis was always the punch line in Led Zeppelin's big show. That band crashed through the self-imposed limits of the blues form using the grandiose gestures of opera. Like opera, its music was both gaudy and beautiful. Jimmy Page expanded rock guitar to encompass medieval modalities and Indian tunings, and he made these shrewd steps with such flash and aggression that they seemed incredible. Robert Plant found the sexual magic within every landscape he pilfered, from the Mississippi Delta to King Arthur's court to the hippie love-ins and feasted on it, swelling with every bite.

That spectacle, of music seemingly bursting its own seams, can still inspire. Led Zeppelin itself, felled in 1977 by the death of its drummer, John Bonham, will never reunite. Mr. Page and Mr. Plant's current collaborators, the most notable being the drummer, Michael Lee, know not to aim for past glories. But Mr. Page and Mr. Plant have the right to do so. At the Garden, they stressed Zep songs and Zep gestures.

Re-enacting Zep's rituals poses a physical challenge for the duo, but it also solves the problem of their aging. The arcane imagery and primal thump of Zep's songs both hint at ancient wisdom and cast a spell of eternal youth. Because they trade in immortality, Mr. Page and Mr. Plant do not look silly when they reject maturity's decorum.

Mr. Plant exuded sexiness, spinning gracefully around the stage. His wails shattered the air as he hit every high note. Yet Mr. Plant's expressions of masculine hunger do not rely just on force; they tap his ever-deepening sense of desire's ebb and flow. On songs like ''Heart in Your Hand'' (from the intriguing new Atlantic Records album, ''Walking to Clarksdale'') or the classic ''Babe I'm Gonna Leave You,'' he deftly juxtaposed urgency with weariness, tenderness with rage.

Mr. Page questions his own virility less frequently. Still a fervent experimentalist, he rarely opts for introversion. He employed many crowd-pleasing tricks: he whipped out his bow for ''How Many More Times,'' and later mixed guitar feedback with the shimmery sounds of a theremin, a motion-sensitive electronic instrument. And his standard riffs dazzled. After years of self-imposed exile, Mr. Page seems fully rejuvenated, sipping gainfully from the cup of Led Zeppelin's catharsis.

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