Even back in 1976, when Led Zeppelin had become part of the musical furniture, Jimmy Page claimed that the minutes before any show were still, by far, the worst. “I always get very edgy, not knowing what to do with myself.” Lord knows, then, what he must have been feeling as the lights went down to herald a comeback far more hotly anticipated than any show Led Zeppelin played during their 12 years together. If he was nervous though, you couldn’t tell from this vantage point. Silhouetted by lights at the back of the stage, Page, the owner of the most intensely scrutinized fracture since Wayne Rooney broke his metatarsal, gazed out behind his shades and casually dropped his hand onto six strings. playing the first ever chord that, back in 1969, ever bore the Led Zeppelin imprint. With Good Times, Bad Times came instant, cavernous volume – a noise which suggested that its creators might have, just for a laugh, set themselves the task of inventing heavy metal all over again. It seemed to catch everyone by surprise – including Robert Plant who momentarily struggled to assert his vocals amid Page’s insouciant guitar pyrotechnics.
At a rehearsal a few weeks previously Plant was heard to complain about the challenges of divining the voice of a twenty year-old from the body of a 60 year-old man. Gradually, it transpired that he needn’t have worried. Older equipment may take a while to get going, but once the requisite valves heat up, the quality is ummistakeable. And so it turned out some fifteen minutes in, when a bracing round of call-and-response oh-yeahs triggered an incendiary Black Dog – and Plant dusted down the sort of old move that you would surely only attempt when things are starting to go well. A quick kick to the base of his mike stand sent it flying up into the path of Plant’s hand. Page dispensed powerchords like an aged Thor lobbing down thunderbolts for kicks. It had been good before, but something of the devil seemed to get hold of them at this point. Now sans shades, Page launched into a filthy seam of swamp guitar, from which a magnificent In My Time Of Dying swelled to epic proportions.
Evenings which have so much resting on them rarely unfold with such an air of assurance. But if anything, the three original members of Led Zeppelin and Jason Bonham seemed relieved to be relinquishing the burden of anticipation. Their heaviosity has always been the cornerstone of their reputation. Perhaps as a result of that, not enough attention has been paid to how astonishingly funky they could be for a rock band. Moving to electric harpsichord, John Paul Jones offered some redress on a piledrivingly danceable Trampled Underfoot. Bonham’s volcanic fills on Nobody’s Fault But Mine – a song Plant playfully claimed to have discovered in a Mississippi church in 1932 – confirmed that there are some things that can only be transmitted through DNA.
In a set of trusted crowd-pleasers the inclusion of Stairway To Heaven was inevitable – this in spite of the fact that Plant has made no secret of his waning enthusiasm for the song. Page dusted down the twin-necked guitar with which the song has become associated, but the song’s ubiquity as a staple of the VH1 generation made it difficult to summon much enthusiasm for it. Perhaps it just comes down to the fact that some tunes have dated better than others – because the moment Page and Bonham locked into Kashmir something, truly transcendent took hold. Over a rhythm that advancing outwards like those martian tripods from War Of The Worlds, John Paul Jones billowed out chords of portent while Plant’s used his wildcat roar to the best effect of the evening.
An on-stage embrace and sundry bows seemed to hint at the relief of four people who seemed to have no idea that this one-off reunion in memory of to their label boss Ahmet Ertegun would attract such intense scrutiny. They returned for a cathartic Whole Lotta Love and a sublime Rock’N’Roll. “It’s been a long, lonely time since I last rock’n’rolled” screeched Plant on the latter – well, at least it has since he did it with this sort of fire-eyed intensity. And all for a one-off show? Come on. With a synergy like this going on, it would be an act of cosmic perversity to stop now.