Decent theatrical documents of rock concerts are few and far between. Only two come to mind: The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense. Previous efforts such as The Song Remains the Same and Shine a Light while they have their moments, are in the case of the former, a bit tiresome, and in the case of the latter, well-executed by ultimately quite flat. It is clear that the film-makers have learnt from the mistakes of other efforts. Celebration Day sets the bar for putting the viewer at the centre of an amazing qualic experience, with more contrived excitement than might have actually existed in reality – but hey, that’s the idea of making this modality work. Of course, the specialized theatre technology heightens the effect, something that would lose its potency on the home screen, but having seen the film in its full glory, I will have no compunction to be reminded of the experience, albeit in an attenuated form.
Substantively, the music was up to scratch as well and one of the charms being that it had a live rawness to it – some mistakes, missed cues, and some genuine spontaneity, rather than being overcooked in post-production. The set list was immaculately and imaginatively chosen. Plant no longer has the range he once had but given that he arguably had the most powerful voice around, he still has a great deal to work with. Page – fascinating to watch: often it looks as if he’s suffered a stroke. No-one besides Hendrix gets such a big and “experimental” sound. Jones is superb and reaffirms the importance of the “quiet one” to the Led Zep sound. And Jason – wow! Here is a guy that does not have to live in his dad’s shadow – he cut’s the mustard all on his own and in his own way. An interesting feature was the protective huddle they almost seem to be in on stage with the lovely gesture of the three surviving members all facing Jason for the final number (explained by JPJ in the press conference).
Led Zep are well and truly a blues band, something that many fail to see. Their roots tacitly and explicitly are in the south – Robert Johnson, Blind Boys of Alabama, “Fats” Domino and more besides and as Plant says in the press conference, outside of New Orleans labels, only Atlantic was special. One of the meta-highlights was the gospel-inspired In My Time of Dying. This is where Plant comes into his own these days – just listen to the fantastic rendition Plant did of Valley of Tears for “Fats'” tribute album.
It was good to see Plant and Page in conventional trousers with belt, at least in Plant’s case, no tight jeans emphasizing the lunchbox region, and Page out of the custom outfits of Led Zep’s heyday. I was quite pleasantly surprised by the demographic of the film’s audience – I’d guess that 60% were in the 30-40 year old age range – those in Jeremy Clarkson jeans and jacket brigade (my age group) were in the minority.
So a doff of the hat to Ahmet Ertegun – the only person that could have got Zep back together. Shame it took his unfortunate death, ironically set in motion backstage of the filming of Shine a Light. I can’t see Zep ever touring – the physical arduousness demanded, however enjoyable they might have found this one-off, would be brutal, and would tarnish this moment. Led Zep are still a powerhouse, musically relevant as ever, while still retaining their dignity. Not many, if any, bands can lay claim to that.