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Led Zeppelin Concert Memories: The Rockpile, Toronto, 18th August 1969

toronto69-posterFrom Underground Uprising

It was a hot August night in the summer of 1969 and we were not headed to a Neil Diamond concert. A sensational power rock band, Led Zeppelin, the latest version of heavy bands which started with Cream back in 66 were in Toronto to do two sold out shows.

My friends Donnie Ditchburn, David Strawbridge who worked for John Gibb, a local Toronto clothier (his store was later to become Long Johns, retailers of rock n’ roll clothing), and I had tickets to the 7:00 p.m. show. Gibb was an old school chum of Jimmy Page and he had had them over for dinner that evening. Pagey as he was called by his mates, was the former front man and lead guitarist for the now defunct Yardbirds, and since he had formed his new band Led Zeppelin, they sailed to the top of the album charts and underground radio stations with their first record entitled Led Zeppelin 1. A previous gig at the same venue earlier in the year (February) had brought quite a lot of good press, especially from Ritchie Yorke, the Toronto Telegram’s resident writer for rock concert reviews back then.

Since the release of the first album, Led Zeppelin’s popularity had created a large cult following thanks to the incredible guitar playing of Jimmy Page and the wailing and siren like voice of the lead singer, Robert Plant. The giant leap in record sales and popularity became for the promoters of this particular show, both a blessing and a curse. Led Zeppelins fee had jumped from 2,000 in February to 8,000 for the two shows on this night, and Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin’s notorious manager was not prepared to honor the agreement he had made with the promoters back in February. More about this later.

The venue for the concert was called The Rockpile, which in fact was the old Masonic Temple located at Davenport and Yonge St. In the past year (68-69), The Rockpile had been converted to Toronto’s version of the Fillmore East, which was much to the disgruntlement of the old Masons who still had some sway and influence in the running of the hall. What bothered them most was all the Marijuana smoke used by all of the stoned out hippies who attended these shows. To the Masons, this temple was a sacred venue. It was a very hot August night as the doors opened at 6:30 and the huge line up piled in quickly so as to get the best possible viewpoint in the hall as there were no seats, you got to sit cross legged on the main floor or stand in the Balcony.

By the time my mates and I got inside we headed straight up up to the balcony area which was jammed packed shoulder to shoulder and hot hot hot. David was a bit of a dandy and would not have considered for a minute sitting down in his finest Carnaby Street styled garb. We would regret not sitting a bit later. By the time the opening act came on, Edward Bear, the temperature inside of the building must have gone well into the 90 degree Fahrenheit range with very high humidity and high smoke density. You surely did not need to bring your own stuff that night because the air was filled with the sweet smell of pungent smoke. Edward Bear, was local pop trio and radio favorite who had a hit, You Me and Mexico.

I found them to be very commercial and in fact could not stand their veiled attempts to look the part with hair down to their shoulders and bell bottomed jeans while at the same time they played forgettable commercial pop. We were here to see our heroes play with the Marshall amps stacked to the ceiling, wailing away to the songs from Led Zeppelin 1. Once their set was finished, they were given a polite and energetic hometown Canadian response and off they went. Perhaps we only had a 20 minute wait for the main act, our heroes!! I couldn’t stand the excitement and anticipation, this was going to be my first live experience to the most listened to band in my repertoire of favorite groups and it was all about to unfold live in front of my eyes. And we waited, and we sweated some more, and we waited. It suddenly dawned on us that there was a problem.

Led Zeppelin was backstage but Peter Grant would not let them go on. Seems the promoters insisted that he honor the contractual option they had exercised from the previous gig and Peter Grant said no way. His attitude was that they had two sold out houses and the band wanted their full fee otherwise they were going back to the hotel and onto the next city on this tour. A tug of war was going on while the 2000 or so of us sweated it out and waited some more. The promoters finally gave in and after about 1 1/2 hours of waiting, which made it about 9:00 pm, we heard the roadies nailing down a drum kit behind the curtain followed by a drummer slashing away at his drums getting ready to play. Then we heard a guitar, and then a bass guitar. Ooh I couldn’t take the excitement at that stage, we were moments away. Suddenly, there was a locomotive opening guitar sound from the song A Train kept a Rollin, an old Yardbirds standby.

toronto69-2cA thundering drum sound and then the curtains exploded open. There they were. The place was bedlam. The band looked very little like the group photo on the back of the first album. Plant had hair down to the middle of his back in blond curls, and was dressed in bell bottom blue jeans and a bright red tee shirt. Page had hair down to his waist, dressed in pink pants and had a Les Paul Sunburst guitar draped over his body, and Jones and Bonham also had very very long hair and wore the fashions of the day even in this ridiculous hot house. All I could think at that moment was how cool they looked. It was like a wave of gigantic sound had hit you and we were on a journey to places I had never been to before in a concert. Marshall amps were piled to the ceiling. It was loud and that was fine by me, how else was one to listen to Led Zeppelin except at ear splitting volume.

Plant sang stronger and harder than anything I’d ever heard before on record. He raced around the stage shaking his shoulders, whipping his head around to shake all that hair, and throwing back beer from the Heinekens he had stashed on Jonesy’s amp at the back of the stage, while the maestro Jimmy Page leaned over his guitar, brought his knees together in a weird sort of knock kneed pose, while rarely looking up from behind all of that jet black cascading mop. The music spoke to us, we were a part of history as far as I was concerned because this group had more energy and spontaneity than any group I had ever seen. It was raw energy, uninhibited, creative, and free from any contrivances.

They segued into I Cant Quit You Babe, You Shook Me, and then Dazed And Confused where somewhere in the middle of the song, the violin bow came out. It was a typical 18-20 minute version of the song from the early days of the band but what really blew my mind was the vocal and guitar interplay between Page and Plant. Page would play some notes, Plant would sing them, Plant would sing some notes, Page would play them. This was not typical stuff that bands would do in concerts. This was taking improvisation out of the box, never to return, amazing.

Then, after Plant introduced the band to us as Jimmy played the intro notes to another Yardbirds standby, Smokestack Lightning, they jumped into the finale, How Many More Times complete with the Lemon Song bit in the middle. This number completely brought the house down with the tradition blues rendition of Squeeze My Lemon until the juice runs down my leg. Then as fast as they had arrived, Robert said to us We have another house to play to tonight, sorry we took so long and see you soon. Then they were off, no encore .

When I left the venue and finally got onto the street out of the hot house of the Rockpile, I really thought that this group, Led Zeppelin would be bigger than Beatles. I was close, and 34 years later I’m still a big fan.

Best wishes, Iden.

May 19, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Concert Memories: Toronto August 18th 1969 | , | Leave a comment