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POP REVIEW; Led Zeppelin Redux, In Spirit, Not Name


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Copyright New York Times Company Feb 28, 1995

by Jon Pareles

Special to The New York Times

The bludgeoning stop-start riffs, the histrionic oohs and ahs, the borrowed blues lyrics, the Celtic modalities and Middle Eastern drones -- could it be Led Zeppelin, on tour again after nearly 15 years? Yes and no. On Sunday night here at the Pensacola Civic Center, the band leaders were Led Zeppelin's main songwriters, the guitarist Jimmy Page and the singer Robert Plant, and most of their set was songs they wrote for Led Zeppelin. But they were out to rethink the music that made Led Zeppelin one of rock's most influential bands.

Led Zeppelin officially disbanded when its drummer, John Bonham, died in 1980. Since then, the surviving members have steadfastly refused the lucrative temptation to tour as Led Zeppelin, though they used the name again for one-time appearances at Live Aid in 1985 and at Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary concert in 1988. But its presence lingers. Led Zeppelin's old songs remain staples on rock radio stations, and its music has been the blueprint for numberless hard-rock bands. When this Page-Plant tour was announced, the shows quickly sold out, including the New York City area stop on April 6 at Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. An album recorded last year by the Page-Plant band, "No Quarter" (Atlantic), has sold a million copies.

Reunited groups usually run through live versions of their greatest hits, trading on nostalgia. But Mr. Page and Mr. Plant -- who did not invite Led Zeppelin's bassist, John Paul Jones, to rejoin them -- wouldn't simply trot out the crowd pleasers. They had fans shouting along to "Black Dog," a masterpiece of lurching, pounding riffs and lusty declamation, but they didn't perform Led Zeppelin chestnuts like "Whole Lotta Love," "Communication Breakdown" or even "Stairway to Heaven."

Instead, they played lesser-known material like "Achilles' Last Stand" (which sounded like a Rush song), "Celebration Day" and "Four Sticks," as well as one song each from their post-Led Zeppelin careers and the Cure's "Lullaby." (Porl Thompson of the Cure was playing second guitar; the group also includes Charlie Jones on bass and Michael Lee on drums, both from Mr. Plant's band.) For many songs, they were backed by a string section from the Nashville Symphony and an eight-member Egyptian strings-and-percussion group, whose sliding violin lines and dizzying rhythms carried songs like "Kashmir" toward the Middle East. The concert also included what is probably the first hurdy-gurdy solo in arena-rock history, Nigel Eaton's introduction to "Gallows Pole."

Though imitators haven't noticed, Led Zeppelin was never simply a blues-rock or hard-rock band. Mr. Plant, now 46, and Mr. Page, 51, made their own musical connections between blues, Celtic and Middle Eastern music. The styles share microtonal shadings, drone harmonies and modal melodies; they also convey a sense of ancient tradition linked with emotional urgency.

Led Zeppelin's commercial coups, not necessarily calculated, were Mr. Page's use of guitar as both blunt instrument and warming presence, and lyrics that expressed adolescent frustrations (especially sexual frustration) and idealistic yearnings, all embodied in Mr. Plant's banshee vocal slides and his golden-boy stage presence. The music had wide mood swings, from slam-bang confidence to wailing despair to quasi-mystical reverie. On albums, obvious sexual double-entendres appeared back to back with cryptic references to myths and quests: "They choose the path where no one goes," Mr. Plant intoned in "No Quarter."

Led Zeppelin's early hits thrived on arrogance; they were Britons swiping the blues, turning up the volume and blasting away any humor or irony. The Page-Plant band could recreate Led Zepplin's impact in songs like "Dancing Days," and Mr. Page played a soaring, sinuous blues guitar solo in "Since I've Been Loving You." But the Page-Plant band's sequel to Led Zeppelin's legacy is filled with musical curiosity and with a kind of humility. The songwriters' contemplative side, and their continuing search for the primal drone, takes priority over the old Brontosaurus stomp. Intriguing as it is, that may not be what most fans want. On opening night, there were boos and grumbling when the two-hour set ended without "Stairway to Heaven."

Rusted Root, the tour's opening act, is a mismatched hybrid: a powerhouse three-member percussion section harnessed to a mediocre folk-rock trio. It's Led Zeppelin's international fusion without the cross-cultural spark.

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