It was a scene to warm the heart of anyone fearful that the generation gap has widened into an unbridgeable chasm. There, on May 8, in the parking lot of McNichols Arena half an hour prior to the not-quite Led Zeppelin reunion, was a mother on the cusp of forty and her two teenage sons sitting in a late-model American car, and all of them were slamming wine coolers. Obviously, the family that kvetches together retches together.
These three were not the only Zeppelin fans who'd prepared for this night of nights--the Denver return of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who last appeared together here in 1974--by oiling themselves well. The only lines in the McNichols lobby that rivaled those at the beer stands were the ones leading to the restrooms, several of whose floors were overflowing with a sticky liquid of unknown origin even before the main attraction appeared. A smallish percentage of the throng was under 25, but plenty of others had clearly worshiped the Zep since its deservedly praised late-Sixties/early-Seventies golden period. For many of them, the show was also a personal reunion--and seeing long-absent buddies left intoxicated patrons at a loss for words. Or, as one man enthusiastically sputtered to a friend, "Hey...you look...it's been too...I can't believe...WOOOOO!"
You couldn't blame these people for expecting an evening of heavy metal of the sort Zeppelin helped spawn; even the sound system, which began booming Cream's greatest hits at the audience as soon as Canada's Tragically Hip had completed its opening set, seemed caught in a time warp. Those consumers who'd parted with folding green for No Quarter, the Page-Plant CD released last year in conjunction with the MTV special UnLEDded, probably realized that their favorite tunes might be rendered in fairly exotic fashion, but that didn't seem to matter to them. Just having the key members of the most popular band of its era back together for their first extended tour in a generation was enough.
Given these modest expectations, Page and Plant had very little to lose--they could have delivered note-for-note versions of their greatest hits (a la the Eagles) and gotten away with it. Instead, they decided to take a slightly different tack. Yes, they'd play the old songs, but they wouldn't simply clone them; rather, they would layer them with Middle Eastern and African instrumentation, thereby implying that they had creative goals that went beyond mere rehashing. As a result, they would provide aficionados with enough of what they wanted to avoid grumbles while inoculating the musicians against the barbs of critics ready to chastise them for blatant greed.
In essence, then, Page and Plant's scheme was a compromise--and, unfortunately, that was precisely what they delivered in concert. The standard repertoire (most of it familiar from No Quarter) was delivered in a fashion recognizable enough to keep the McNichols mob sated, if not exactly inspired. And, just as important, the set prompted local reviewers to engage in the usual gushy cliche-athons. For example, a Rocky Mountain News writer gave the concert an A- mark--a rating the paper's editors unwittingly put in perspective by printing it on the same page as a B+ notice for a Barry Manilow performance. Had Manilow added some North African flavor to "Copacabana," perhaps his grade would have been kicked up a notch.
For all of the careful planning inherent in this production, though, the extravaganza wound up seeming labored and dull--which Led Zeppelin, in spite of its frequent excesses, never was. More to the point, the core band--Page, Plant, bassist Charlie Jones, drummer Michael Lee and guitarist (and member of the Cure) Porl Thompson--was at its best on the numbers in which it simply played the tunes the way Zeppelin had lo those many years before.
That's the way the set started, and although the aging stars of the show looked fairly silly in their Seventies cock-rock finery (Plant wore black leather pants and a black leather vest over his bare pecs, while Page opted for a polyester disco shirt), the version of "Thank You" was unadorned, straightforward and effective. Early on, Page was intellectually engaged with the music--and when, three numbers later, he made his guitar scream with the help of a mysterious, antenna-topped contraption, he appeared legitimately amused by the sounds he was manipulating. He may have looked puffy and bloated--like a somewhat slimmer Roseanne, or an inflatable sex doll wearing a fright wig--but for that moment, he gave off a glimmer of what he once was.
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After that, however, the rock and roll began to dissipate in the face of the program's tasteful concept. First came Nigel Eaton with a hurdy gurdy, followed by an ensemble of violinists and percussionists called the Egyptian Pharaohs and a slew of contributors from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. The members of the two orchestras were arrayed at the rear of the stage, in two individual boxes, and that's how they remained--isolated and separate from the main proceedings. There was little interaction between the various knots of players, and few instances in which one conglomeration seemed to spur on another. Worse, the strings were assigned portions of the arrangements that Page had rendered on the originals, giving the guitarist little to do on too many occasions. Pushed into a secondary role, he frequently responded with disinterested background strumming--and even when he had an opportunity to solo, his playing was notably conventional. He sounded less like himself than a Page imitator.
Plant was prominent by comparison, but his stage movements and Dead dances were perfunctory, lacking in enthusiasm, and his gentlemanly patter was too close to Phil Collins's for anyone's comfort. This English upper-class reserve, combined with slowed-down, dragged-out, generally bloodless renditions of "No Quarter," "Gallow's Pole" and others, left the group sounding like Led Zeppelin Lite--half the calories of regular Led Zeppelin, and half the impact as well.
What made this state of affairs particularly distressing was the fact that Plant and Page are capable of delivering more intensity than they demonstrated over the long haul. During a tiny fragment of "Dazed and Confused," especially, they proved that they could do justice to their harder material. But that's not what they had in mind. Typical was "Kashmir," yet another deliberate drone in an evening full of them, and if it was competently rendered, that was all it was. Quite a few listeners sat down while listening to it, not because they were too drunk to stand, but because sitting was the appropriate thing to do.
Still, most ticket-buyers left happy: They had wanted a glimpse of two rock legends arm in arm again, and they'd gotten one. Besides, they weren't as young as they'd once been; a sedate, occasionally boring Zeppelin was just their speed. Before seeing the band in 1974, they'd no doubt downed bottles of rotgut like it was soda pop. But now, drinking wine coolers with the kids is just fine.