Classic Rock Review

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Led Zeppelin How The West Was One (2003)


I don’t feel extremely comfortable reviewing this particular album in this particular spot. Chronologically, this is Led Zep’s third live album – following the much delayed Song Remains The Same soundtrack (1976, actually recorded in 1973) and the archive BBC Sessions from 1969-71 (reviews for both these albums see below). However, this is, as of this sunny day in July 2004, the earliest recorded Zep performance to have been officially released under the supervision of Jimmy Page himself, as opposed to the innumerable army of Zep boots, and since all of these performances were taken from two side-by-side LA shows respectively dating back to June 25th and June 27th, 1972, this is where the album certainly belongs in the discography.

Upon its release, How The West Was Won was predictably announced as Zep’s greatest live album – considering that critical opinion has always held TSRTS in contempt. The BBC album fared much better upon release, but then, after all, it was a compilation, and didn’t exactly let you recreate the true atmosphere of a true Zep show. And voila, here you have it: Led Zeppelin at their absolute creative peak (not my opinion, but since when does my opinion matter when it comes to Led Zeppelin? Hell, I might as well start opinionating on the tax policies of Sierra-Leone right now!), Led Zeppelin playing huge American arenas full of crazy guitar-hungry fans, Led Zeppelin in pristine audio quality with each individual member’s talents shining right on through, Led Zeppelin providing you with 3 CDs worth of material, honestly reproducing the scope and length of an entire show, and plus you can have five hours of video material if you also buy the 2-DVD pack.

Manna from heaven, right? And this ain’t Deep Purple, who have been peppering the market with releases of varying quality for decades now; this is Led Zeppelin, who treasure their reputation and wouldn’t dare throwing out subpar material. How The West Was Won was supposed to be excellent, and even if some people could actually be somehow disappointed, they had to conceal the disappointment. Not that anybody was disappointed. Hell, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a classy release.

Unfortunately, it only further confirms my suspicions: I don’t really care THAT much for live Zeppelin in that they do not have a tendency to make their live material THAT much more impressive than their studio recordings. If you take the band’s closest competition, such as the Who or the already mentioned Deep Purple, both of these bands have an advantage. The Who live simply sound nothing like the Who in the studio – you don’t need to go further than Tommy to see that. Deep Purple live stick somewhat closer to the original, but their advantage is that they more or less sucked at production values – the rawer they are, the better it is, because all of their attempts to ‘smooth out’ their sound in the studio have backfired.

On the other hand, Led Zeppelin, mainly due to having two former “production aces” – Jimmy and J. P. Jones – in their midst, have always exceeded in the studio. Much of the thickness, darkness, creepy broodiness of the classic Zepster mystique simply gets lost when transferred to the stage. Certainly when playing a song like ‘Black Dog’, Jimmy’s fingers move along the fretboard with much the same kind of agility and confidence they do in the studio; but somehow the end result is… well, just a savage blues-rock attack, not a vividly Freudian monster of a subconscious-exploring nerve-wrecking piece of art. (Especially when Jimmy suddenly raises the guitar pitch in the middle of the song – a ‘Black Dog’ that actually SQUEALS? Pathetic).

Another obvious minus – to me – is Plant’s being at the top of his ‘obnoxiousness’ phase. You’ll see that reappear on the other live albums as well, but… but… sing, goddammit, sing, don’t clutter potentially awesome songs like ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ and ‘Dazed And Confused’ with superfluous stutterings, yelps, and gross hyper-exaggerations that would make any self-respecting Thespian crawl under the table. Is that guy suffering from an inferiority complex or what?

Another obvious minus is twenty minutes of ‘Moby Dick’. But you saw that coming, didncha? Don’t tell me you weren’t ready for that! Well, at least now all of us can believe those fists could easily kick the shit out of a bunch of security guards in their time.

Now about the pluses. Pluses include… everything else. This is Led Zeppelin, goddammit, not Bad Company. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ absolutely rules in this performance: no mistakes, no imprecision, the ‘do you remember laughter’ line carelessly shoved in the background, and Page at his very, very best with the solo. The three-number acoustic set breathed new life in my love for ‘Going To California’ and rejuvenated my interest for ‘That’s The Way’ and ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’. Sadly, although they already were playing songs from the upcoming Houses Of The Holy, there’s no live ‘No Quarter’ here – one spot where TSRTS certainly has an advantage over this thing – but there’s no ‘D’Yer Mak’er’ either, and as for ‘The Crunge’, it is wisely, carefully, and humorously buried in the depths of the ‘Dazed And Confused’ medley, a move I appreciated.

Likewise, the ‘Whole Lotta Love’ medley is also priceless, with several old boogie and blues numbers making the list for the boys to have some pure fun with. You could, of course, accuse Jimmy of “going for the generic” out there – some of those numbers could have been played with similar effect by anybody at the time – but dedicated fans and blues lovers will always be interested to see his take on the pure, unadulterated forms of their kind of music, and besides, it’s easier to tolerate a ‘medley’ than it is to simply tolerate a twenty-minute guitar jam, isn’t it? (Not to offend Cream here, but hey, twenty-minute guitar jams are not the kind of thing for which I give Cream the edge over Zep anyway).

In short, it’s more or less what I expected, a respectable primer of the Zep live sound around 1972, but not quite enough to push the BBC Sessions off the ‘best live album’ pedestal – and if my intuition serves me right, this moment could only arrive once the ex-Zepsters start brushing the dust off earlier shows, say, from the year 1969, for example. Going by Jimmy’s current rate, though, I doubt if we’ll ever actually get the chance.

March 2, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin How The West Was Won |

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