I haven’t listened to Led Zeppelin in probably two decades. I listened to them all the time in college, to the point where Led Zeppelin II was on constant rotation in my dorm room. As a result, I kind of overdosed on them, reached critical mass, and decided I needed to take a break. That break lasted pretty much until last night, when I went with a group of friends to the Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street to see Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day, a one-night-only, big-screen film of their 2007 reunion concert in honor of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. (The concert was such a big deal that they had to give away tickets by lottery. There were 18,000 seats in the arena. Twenty million people applied.)
Before the film began, I looked around and realized it was the first time I’d been in a movie theater in recent history, or perhaps ever, where everyone was my age or older. There were no teenagers texting, talking on their phones, shouting at each other, or throwing their garbage everywhere. I don’t mean to sound like a crotchety old man, but hell, this is a blog post about Led Zeppelin, so why should I try to pretend otherwise? It was fucking awesome not having any kids in the theater. There, I said it!
The film doesn’t waste any time with backstage interviews or shots of the band arriving or any of that. After a short credit sequence, the lights come up on stage and the band kicks right into “Good Times, Bad Times.” Boom. Led fucking Zeppelin. Sure, they’re older now. They look doughy, weathered. Jimmy Page looks like a taller version of Harlan Ellison with his long white hair and sunglasses. (He also mugs hilariously throughout his guitar solos. The man can’t control his face!) John Paul Jones looks a bit like Lance Henriksen now. Robert Plant, well, he looks exactly the same because he’s a fucking rock god and will outlive all of us. (They’re joined on the drums by Jason Bonham, son of the band’s original drummer, the late John Bonham. Jason plays just like his dad, including all the off-beats and counter-beats, and clearly has a rapport of respect and friendship with the other band members.) You would be forgiven for thinking, Can they still play at this age? All I can say is: You have no idea. They brought their A game. They play with an assuredness that comes with age and experience, and they know they have nothing to prove. As a result, they play the best they ever have. This is one of the best concerts I have ever seen, and hell, I saw Peter Gabriel at Madison Square Garden in his 1980s heyday!
The strange thing about seeing the concert in a movie theater is that you almost immediately forget you’re not actually in the arena. The theater audience was hooting and hollering and clapping after every number, as if the band members could hear them through the screen and across the five year divide. It didn’t matter. I clapped and wooooooed with the rest of them.
The setlist was a nice mix of showstoppers like “Trampled Under Foot” and “Misty Mountain Hop,” as well as less-played numbers like “In My Time of Dying” and “For Your Love,” the latter of which I’m told they had never played live before. But it’s essentially a catalogue of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits, so they’re all showstoppers, really. Despite my twenty year moratorium, I realized I still knew every note, every word, every key change of every song. That’s how ingrained their music had become in my mind.
The concert is so high energy you’ll be going nuts from minute one, but by the time Jimmy Page breaks out the violin bow during “Dazed and Confused” and is suddenly surrounded by a spinning green laser pyramid, you’ll go apeshit. Which brings me to the only drawback of seeing a show like this in a movie theater. You have no outlet for all the energy you’re taking in. At a concert venue you can dance and jump around and scream like a madman to release that energy again, but in a movie theater you’re stuck in your chair, and the energy just keeps building and building inside you. By the halfway point I was already feeling overstimulated. You know those videos on YouTube of people fainting on rollercoasters? I felt like I was moments away from the same fate. But then, just as I thought my head was going to explode and I would die, the band, as if sensing this, mellows things out with “Stairway to Heaven.” After that, it was like they’d pressed the reset button, and I was okay again. “Stairway” was great, of course, but they close the show (pre-encores) with my second-favorite Led Zeppelin song, “Kashmir,” a version Zeppelin aficionados are apparently already calling the best live version of that song they’ve ever done. I won’t argue.
For the curious, here is the complete setlist:
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 And Confused
11. Stairway To Heaven
12. The Song Remains The Same
13. Misty Mountain Hop
15. Encore: Whole Lotta Love
16. Encore 2: Rock And Roll
At two hours long, it’s one of the greatest rock and roll experiences you’ll have. It’s also a reminder, in case we’ve forgotten, of just how influential and important a band they were. Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands, if not the first, to take the psychedelic rock and roll of the 1960s and add a harder edge and heavier beats to it, essentially inventing hard rock as we know it today. Maybe even metal and prog rock, too.
My only complaints about the concert are about songs they didn’t play. They didn’t play my favorite Led Zeppelin song of all time, “When the Levee Breaks,” and I would have lost my shit completely if they’d played “The Immigrant Song.” Maybe next time. (If there is a next time.) Until then, Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day is coming out on video and CD in November. If you’re a fan, catch it, and remember why you loved Zeppelin in the first place.