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Still Showing Some Zep

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant swaggered and summoned their old thunder while also offering songs of vulnerability and even poignancy.

September 21, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it's true that whom the gods would humble they first exalt, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have a date with humility in their future--although judging from their mostly glorious show Friday at Irvine Meadows, it may not be any time soon.

In their youth with Led Zeppelin, Page, the composer-guitarist, and Plant, the singer-lyricist, created a brand of big-gesture rock that was mainly thunder and mysticism, with very little of the stuff of scruffy, everyday life that often entered the work even of such lofty, hard-rocking peers as the Who and the Rolling Stones.

Having swung the hammer of the gods in their 20s, one would assume the time is approaching when Page, 54, and Plant, 50, won't be up to such heavy lifting. Indeed, Plant's trademark cock's-crow wail isn't as high and piercing as in his prime, and his voice has acquired a husky grain. Page's youthful good looks disappeared long ago (and now he's finally cut his frizzy hair), and his performances since the Led Zeppelin days haven't always carried the old spark.

But, backed by three younger players on drums, bass and keyboards, they summoned the old thunder Friday night. And when they didn't it was often because they were busy placating the gods with songs played in a more intimate and vulnerable emotional key that could give them a credible musical path when they no longer can thunder quite so believably.

Page and Plant reunited in 1994 for "No Quarter," their first album together since Led Zeppelin's 1980 breakup. The record and subsequent tour found them reworking old Zep material with slightly different strains of grandeur and mysticism, thanks to the string orchestras and ensemble of Egyptian musicians that joined them on tour.

Now comes the recently released "Walking Into Clarksdale," Page and Plant's first album of new songs together since Led Zeppelin. It's the work of middle-aged men, not young gods. Chastened and yearning, not hormonal and gigantic, it has far more purpose and feeling than most albums from '60s and '70s icons who need a fresh excuse to tour and milk the market.

The new songs, and some well-chosen old ones, allowed Page and Plant to ease away from full-time hammer-swinging and find a more balanced blend of titanhood and vulnerable humanity.

They came out swaggering with a series of old Zep numbers. "Heartbreaker" was a wonderful lurching stomp that signaled Page's full engagement, but the rest of the sequence was murky-sounding and unfocused. The title track from "Clarksdale" also turned up early on, and it momentarily sank the show with its flat, almost formless new attempt at an old Zep trademark, blues done slow and ultra-heavy. "No Quarter," a fling with the old sword and sorcery fixation, found Plant hiding under electronic effects that made his voice sound as if he were singing in a concrete pipe.

Then came "When the World Was Young," a poignant, soulfully yearning new-album song that conceded a gap between what they were and what they are now, yet prayed for the grace and strength to go on: "Carry me still, sweet home of my heart take me dancing," Plant sang in a supplicant's voice devoid of any hint of the old banshee business. This was a human being speaking, not an age-shrunken demigod.

Page's elegiac guitar riff, with its pealing but burnished and throaty tone, spoke as eloquently as Plant's vocal. Two other new songs, the pleading "Heart in Your Hand," and "Most High," a Middle Eastern-flavored stand-in for Zep's mystical epic, "Kashmir," also were vital contributions to the set, far from the usual obligatory nods to the present inserted as fig leaves over the nostalgic agendas of concerts by classic-rock icons.

Zep standards formed the show's core, however. The key ones fit with Page and Plant's more balanced vision of what suits them now: intimate acoustic readings of "Going to California" and "Tangerine," and versions of "Gallows Pole," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Thank You" exemplifying the dynamic song construction that, along with titanic force, has given Led Zeppelin's catalog such influence and staying power. Blitzes through "Whole Lotta Love" and "Rock and Roll" showed that Page and Plant, abetted by a marvelous young drummer, Michael Lee, could still step assuredly into their old hammer-swinging mode.

Plant strutted as well as ever, doing boxer's footwork and dancing with his microphone stand or cord while an electric fan blew his blond tresses for that wind-swept, adventure-hero effect. Page mainly kept his head down and concentrated on his playing.

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