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Classic Rock Shaking The Body And Soul (JP & BC review)


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Classic Rock Shaking The Body And Soul (JP & BC review)

New York Times Jul 12, 2000

by Ann Powers

Champions of rock's old ways gathered Sunday and tonight at the Jones Beach Theater to pay fervid tribute to their twilight-dodging gods. Many wore ceremonial garb -- well-washed concert T-shirts from past such rituals. Most were old enough to have attended one or two decades' worth of shows featuring the Who, the band that performed on Sunday, or Jimmy Page, the former Led Zeppelin guitarist who shared tonight's stage with the Black Crowes.

The few youths wandering around each night affected a vintage look -- spiky mod haircuts for the Who, flowing hippie garb for Mr. Page -- that proved their right to inheritance. This was classic rock, after all, a form of expression that pop trend-setters consider as antiquated as monarchism and, according to its acolytes, as endangered. It may seem preposterous to call legendary millionaires like the Who and Mr. Page underdogs, but they have embraced that stance. The acts are touring in tandem, sharing a road crew to defray costs, like old vaudevillians hooking up their wagons. Both have released live albums available only through the Internet site musicmaker.com, adopting the marketing approach of music industry rebels. Facing more respect than enthusiasm from an industry more interested in the cash crops of teenage pop and hip-hop, these dignitaries have reimagined themselves as subversives.

The Black Crowes' lead singer, Chris Robinson, has said that playing with Mr. Page renews his faith, tested by the shallowness of the current pop scene. Pete Townshend, the Who's guitarist and main songwriter, echoed Mr. Robinson's ambivalence on Sunday. Introducing ''Bargain,'' recorded in 1971, he said, ''In many ways, rock did achieve a lot spiritually.'' Perhaps the times, Mr. Townshend quietly added, allowed the music's soaring promise.

The Jones Beach concerts proved that those times could be summoned, if only for a few hours. Both acts performed as if to banish time, with Mr. Townshend and Mr. Page particularly showing their prowess. These are two of rock's most athletic guitarists, and each performed his signature stunts: Mr. Townshend windmilled his strumming arm and ultimately smashed his instrument, while Mr. Page shook and undulated in his usual wizardly fashion. No need for artistic Viagra here! The beasts still howled.

So did the singers. Roger Daltrey bellowed on point, played a wicked harmonica, and with his remarkably well-preserved (and eagerly displayed) physique, he made a more convincing Siegfried than some who have graced the stage of the Met. Mr. Robinson, replacing Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, rock's greatest operatic star, wisely adapted the heroic role to suit his devilish style. He wailed, as Zeppelin arias like ''Your Time Is Gonna Come'' and ''In the Light'' demanded, but he also snapped and snarled, bringing out the streetwise edge in these epic blues. The relatively youthful players in both bands kept the music tight, with no nonsense. Zak Starkey, the one 30-something Who member, is literally a classic-rock inheritor: he's the son of Ringo Starr, and learned to pound at the feet of the Who's own Keith Moon, who died in 1978. Mr. Starkey's style is inseparable from Mr. Moon's, and his rapport with the bassist John Entwistle was easy on the band's rapid-fire songs.

The Black Crowes are inheritors too, through willpower, not birthright. Perceived as a bunch of old fogeys from the start of a decade-long recording career, the six-piece band has followed the worn path of early hits, drug-fueled mid-career slump, and critically acclaimed comeback. Like classic rock itself, the Black Crowes survived silliness to earn integrity. Playing Led Zeppelin's songbook (plus a few Black Crowes songs) with nary a misplaced note, supporting the constantly soloing Mr. Page, the band gained a noble aura enforced by lyrics about long journeys and legendary wars.

Proving with their vitality that classic rock can still galvanize the body and stir the soul, the Who and Mr. Page with the Crowes made nostalgia valiant. But nostalgia for what? If classic rock deserves not only preservation, which these concerts achieved, but renewal, which hinted-at future recordings by both acts promise, what could it give back to today's pop scene?

Not simply virtuosity, which was in full evidence at these shows, but which also belongs to hip-hop's turntablists and even some teenage popsters. Not depth, exactly, although songs like the Who's ''Baba O'Riley'' and Led Zeppelin's ''Misty Mountain Hop'' have it. The Jones Beach shows suggested that the very qualities for which classic rockers are usually condemned are its greatest gifts: arrogance, pretentiousness, self-absorption.

Turn those negatives around and you have a strong belief in rock's power to become art, to transcend its moment and affect consciousness. The Who and Led Zeppelin used the forcefulness of amplified blues to explore serious subjects -- class and identity, religious longing, the depths of sexuality. They believed in their right to do this and still talk dirty, strut around in feathers and tight jeans, and generally have fun. In their hands, classic rock erases the line between ambition and fun.

For the fans who came out in their ceremonial T-shirts, these bands (and the Black Crowes after them, carrying the torch) open the door to dreams that they otherwise might feel embarrassed to voice. The reach of classic rock may sometimes seem to exceed its grasp, but that very striving is its most honorable quality. Age hasn't dimmed it in stars like the Who and Jimmy Page, and changing fashions will not extinguish its power in the lives of those it touches.

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