Scorching, blistering set by the master and his apprentices
Rock musicians seem to burn ever so brightly throughout popular culture, and none more so than Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire and ex-member of one of the most iconic rock and roll groups the world has ever seen (and likely ever will see). Led Zeppelin were a quartet who managed to crank out more classic riffs than any hard rock band has any right to, and whose musical abilities have become the stuff of legend.
Back in 1999, with Robert Plant deciding to take a well-earned sabbatical from reliving his rock god past after issuing two albums and touring the world with Page, the guitarist joined forces with none other than American retro-rockers The Black Crowes for a week-long stint of performances, the last two of which were thankfully preserved and released the following year. This double CD captures the magic of those nights as they unfolded at the famous Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
Page’s choice in collaborators (or conspirators) proved to be wise one, as The Crowes are, or rather were (in early 2015 they made the decision to disband permanently) one of the exemplars of authentic blues-rock as you’re ever likely to hear this side of 1974 (thankfully Aerosmith wasn’t on Page’s list of potential candidates. Steve Tyler belting out “Whole Lotta Love” is hardly my idea of musical nirvana). Also, Page and Co. rightfully steer clear of turning this into a greatest hits package. Here you’ll get no “Black Dog” or “Stairway to Heaven”. Instead, what we do have is a far more interesting and diverse selection of songs from Zep’s back catalogue, along with a few genuine surprises in between. So, rather than the grandiose sirocco swept epic of “Kashmir”, we are treated to a scorching “In My Time of Dying”, something of an epic in its own right, of which I shall delve into later.
One complaint critics often state about this album is that Chris Robinson ultimately lacks the necessary monolithic tonsils to make it truly work. But if that’s what Page was really after, then he might as well of given his old mate David Coverdale a call, or better still, brought in the local Led Zep tribute act. Sure, Robinson is no Plant, yet he does a magnificent job all the same, giving it his all, and injecting new life into what is overly familiar territory for many long time fans. The rest of the group are no amateurs either, let it be said, when it comes to recreating the classics.
The album kicks off with a frenzied and energetic “Celebration Day”, and while it’s obvious that Page may not be quite as nimble as he used to be, the man has lost none of the actual spirit which made him so great to begin with. And with two guitarists behind him, Page has the luxury of concentrating more on the significant aspects of his playing, something he was not always able to do in the 1970’s. “Custard Pie” and “Sick Again”, from Physical Graffiti follow, and they’re both about as heavy weight as it gets. Drummer Steve Gorman may not possess the personality of John Bonham, but by God he brings the thunder, in his own way of course.
“What is and What Should Never Be” is given a dreamy and appropriately brutal workout, before the group launch into “Woke up This Morning”, a B.B. King tune, where it’s obvious that they are clearly having fun. The band roars its way through the old Yardbirds classic “Shapes of Things to Come”, with Robinson more in Steve Marriot than Keith Relf mode. We have another blues standard in “Sloppy Drunk” which I’m sure must have had more than a few people in the audience smiling (or at least blues fanatics anyway).
Around this time Page commented that what he enjoyed about these shows was that having an extra guitarist or two meant that he could hear the full arrangements as they were recorded in the studio in a way that he could never replicate on stage, and “Ten Years Gone” does indeed benefit from having such a wider ensemble. And while the original recording will always remain the definitive version, Page and the boys execute it beautifully (even if Robinson does tend to conk out toward the end of the higher notes).
And now the song I mentioned earlier, “In My Time of Dying”. This one has to be heard to be believed. The first time I heard it I felt as though I needed to go to bed soon after it ended, and I still get that feeling now. If you love your slide guitar, then this is the track; a whole fucking three of them! Once again Gorman successfully pounds away at your inner brain cells with his multi-dextrous drumming. And speaking of brain cells, you won’t have many left after “You’re Time is Gonna Come”. All I can say is play this too loud and your neighbours will never speak to you again.
And if all that wasn’t enough, the second CD opens with “The Lemon Song”, originally a Howlin’ Wolf tune reappropriated by Zeppelin on their first LP. All I can say is that it’s like listening to the musical equivalent of a large city being destroyed. On “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” they take no prisoners in devastating fashion, as if a nuclear blast had just gone off and incinerated the audience. A meaty, muscular version of “Heartbreaker” keeps the momentum going, allowing Page to flex some serious six-string muscle in the process. “Hey Hey What Can I Do” was the b-side to “Immigrant Song” in 1970, and it’s a joy to hear it here. “Mellow Down Easy”, “Shake Your Money Maker” and “You Shook Me” all succeed in shaking the tiles off you and your next neighbours roof, while their interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” (written by Peter Green) thumps and snakes its way around your living room.
The album ends on a high note (or two in fact) with “Out On the Tiles” followed by “Whole Lotta Love”, which benefits from having three guitars, and a rhythm section who were obviously determined to punch a hole in the fabric of space itself.
What this release makes obvious, from start to finish, is that Page was no doubt revelling in his role as elder hard-rock statesman, and having a blast while he was at it. While Robert Plant is capable of drifting in and out of Zeppelin consciousness, re-arranging and adapting his past according to his present needs, Page on the other hand remains a committed historian to a cause of which he was largely the creator. For any fan of Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes, Live at the Greek is not only an amalgam of the best of each artist, but an impressive display of blues-rock at its most preeminent. In other words, a match made in heaven.