Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Celebration Day

Finally, 5 years after the concert, the obligatory film of Led Zeppelin's now legendary reunion show on December 10, 2007 is being released on DVD / Blu-Ray. For one day only on October 17th, the concert film (titled Celebration Day) was screened in theaters worldwide.  Amazingly, I can name at least 4 people who are in my iPhone contacts who attended the show. That's a pretty amazing ratio since reportedly 20 million (!) people worldwide entered the lottery to obtain one of the only 18,000 tickets.  Yes, Umlaut saw Celebration Day but rather than me ranting about it I thought it would be more interesting to have someone who saw the concert in person give his reaction to seeing Celebration Day.

John Marshall and I have known each other for 30 years (!) and some of you may know him from his time with Metal Church and his association with Metallica.  John was one of the fortunate few who were in the same room as Led Zeppelin on that cold night in December of 2007.  So, without further ado, here is John's reaction to:

Five years ago I was lucky enough to attend the Coolest Concert Ever: Led Zeppelin at the O2 Arena in London. I have been geeking out on this band for over 30 years.  When I was a teenager I used to take the speakers from my Precor 8-track AM/FM Phonograph stereo, set them on the floor facing each other with a pillow in between them, and put my head on the pillow and lie there listening to 'The Song Remains The Same' over and over again in the dark. Ultra Geeky, right? So after the double punch of missing the 1977 Oakland show and then John Bonham dying in 1980, I figured I would never see them live. And I had accepted that. But as we all know, the Rock Godz work in mysterious ways, and three decades later there I was in the audience in London, worshiping like Geeks do.

Because the concert was delayed from its original date by two weeks, my “date” couldn’t make it and I ended up going by myself. I got to my hotel in London the day before the show and collected my ticket from the folks at Q-Prime, who had an entire hotel suite dedicated to the process of dealing with the guest list. I cradled it like it was Willie Wonka’s last Golden Ticket.

The next afternoon I took The Tube over to the 02 Arena and met up with Big Mick and Paul Owen (Metallica’s longtime sound and monitor engineers) and Big Mick’s brother ("It’s me bruvva!") for a snack and beer before the show. Big Mick had the incredible honor of running the front of house sound for Zeppelin, although he only mixed the bandRobert Plant had his own longtime sound man, who had his own mixing desk loaded with vocal effects that he could blend in at any time. The dual sound engineer approach seemed a little odd, but the sound during the show was excellent. (Geeky techie note: Plant’s sound guy did miss the echo in 'No Quarter' where he sings “The Winds of Thor are blowing cold"...but funny enough the effect shows up in the movie..).

After Big Mick and beers I made my way to stand in line to get in. Once inside I met up with a mutual friend of Umlaut and I and we sat and watched the arena fill up. The inside of the 02 Arena was awash in a blue glow from the house lighting, and we were mesmerized by the vibe that was happening. The crowd was not the loud rowdy type you’d expect waiting for a show of this magnitude. Instead it was almost a quiet reverence, like the vibe you’d expect when you know you are about to witness history. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.

When show time got closer I made my way to my assigned seat. I soon realized that I was in the same section as the music industry insiders. Several rows in front of me I could see Mensch and Burnstein and the Q Prime crowd. My seat was right on the aisle and pretty soon a Who’s Who of Rock started cruising by, making their way down to their seats. Suddenly Brian May walked right past me... Holy shit! Of course I froze up, and couldn’t say anything. Damn! However I did say hello to Randy Johnson, who I had met years earlier in Seattle at a Metallica show. He is 6”10” tall and it’s a rare thing when I have to look up at someone when I talk to them.

The opening acts were good, and the heartfelt tributes to Ahmet Ertegun flowed freely; it was mostly a blur though. I couldn’t focus, and I’m pretty sure my heart rate stayed up for almost two hours straight, knowing what was to come. It’s funny, because normally big acts like that (Bill Wyman, Paul Rodgers, and Albert Lee among them) would be enjoyable, but I really didn’t give a shit. 

After the opening acts as the stage was cleared for Zeppelin, the tarps on the backline were pulled back, and there it was: Jimmy Page’s 4x12 cabinet with the Zoso logo on it. It started to sink in: This was fucking real! Finally the house lights went down, the crowd roared, and a short film started. It was about the show they played in Tampa in 1973 that set the record for the largest audience (at the time) for a Rock show. Then 'Good Times Bad Times' came thundering in and the place became alive. It was exciting, electric, and overwhelming. I was trying to watch, and trying to take pictures and video all at the same time and failing miserably. It was during the second song ('Ramble On') when it all hit me hard, and tears started streaming down my face. All the years of Geekdom, listening, absorbing this music and here it was finally coming back to me live. I have never been so moved by music, and probably never will again.

Fast forward to this week and a movie of the Coolest Concert Ever was in theaters for one night only and the DVD comes out in November. How cool is that? Recorded for posterity in full 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound! A friend from work is a fellow Zep Geek, so we decide to make an evening of it with our spouses and met up at the local brew house across the street from the theater. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this movie; I have vivid memories of sitting in line outside the Park Theater in El Sobrante, surrounded by pot smoke and beer, waiting for the midnight showing of The Song Remains the Same. But this was not 1977. 

We got inside the theater about 20 minutes before the film started, but there was no pot, no beer, and no line. In fact, there were only maybe 25 or so people in the whole theater! A few more people trickled in as we waited, but right before the movie was set to start an employee came into the theater to apologize, saying that there’s been a delay. He told us that they have been on the phone to London trying to get an e-mail sent with a digital license key that will allow their computer to play the downloaded movie! This is definitely NOT 1977! 

He entertained us for a few minutes, apologizing profusely and complaining that the lack of advertising for the film was the reason there was nobody there, while promising to cut out the trailers. Finally his radio crackled that it was all set to go and someone told him to “Turn it up!” 

He obliged quite nicely.

When the movie started, I was transported right back to 5 years ago in London and to the 30 years before that. It’s the same killer music, so familiar that it feels like it’s wired to my DNA. After seeing the concert in London, I had gone back to the hotel and scribbled down some notes, just to try and remember the show. A lot of that came flooding back as I watched the movie. 

Something I realized is just how much of Zeppelin’s music is drawn from the Blues, and just how much those Blues roots shone through in the set that they played. It seems obvious now, but I’d never noticed it until I saw them live. Zeppelin do what every great band does: They take their influences and twist them into something unique and completely original ('Black Mountain Side' notwithstanding). Plant introduced 'Trampled Underfoot' as their version of Robert Johnson’s 'Terraplane Blues' (which it is), and he introduced their version of 'Nobody’s Fault But Mine' as an old spiritual sung in Black churches in the early 1930’s (which it is). Over the years they have been labeled as Rock, Acid Rock, Heavy Metal, etc. but on that night in London they were a Blues band on steroids. 

For being the biggest Rock Stars on the planet, their onstage demeanor was remarkably subdued and that’s what makes them so cool. They’re not standing up there with their toes on the front edge of the stage, shoving guitar solos and wicked screams down the audience’s throat, which seems required today. They just stood together in front of the drum riser, playing songs and playing music for the audience. Fucking. Great. Music. Just like Back In The Day, when music was the show, not the vehicle for the show. Kids these days just don’t know. 

Watching the band at the concert, I felt like they were a little apprehensive and somewhat overwhelmed by the hugeness of the day. But this didn’t come across in the movie. In fact, something I didn’t see at the concert is just how much they smiled at each other, they truly seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves, although many of those smiles seemed to be because of how truly kickass Jason Bonham was. Every killer drum fill brought a reaction from Plant or Page. He brought all the vibe, timing and thunder of his dad and did it with class and style. RAWK. 

Thankfully this movie is nothing like The Song Remains The Same. There are no fantasy sequences, no interviews, no out-of-sync video, and no commentary. Celebration Day is literally just the concert (although there will be an extras DVD). During the movie I kept going between the music geek and the techie geek in me, looking for weird edits or stuff that were changed or left out. There is one bit missing from the film that happened at the concert:  Right before 'Misty Mountain Hop', when Plant says what a great singer Jason Bonham is and tells him to sing a little. At the show Jason responded with the vocal intro to 'I Can’t Quit You Baby' and the place went nuts! I kept waiting for it in the movie, and it wasn’t there. Other than that there seems to be minimal editing, and for the most part the movie is seamless. You feel like you’re watching the concert as it happened, and no song was left out nor was the sequence changed.

The set list was as good as it could have been, because there are so many great songs to choose from. Funny enough, the one song that stuck in my head the whole next day was 'For Your Life', one that Zeppelin had never played live before. (Funny concert note: During 'Since I’ve Been Loving You', Marilyn Manson and his girlfriend got up and went to get a beer or take a leak or something. Are you serious? I had to pee too, but I held it!) 'Black Dog' was earthshaking. 'Nobody’s Fault But Mine' was brutal. I was glad that 'Stairway' was NOT the featured closer.  That spot fell to 'Kashmir' and it was perfect.  In fact it was EPIC and the best way to end the main set. Ultimately the movie was just what I had hoped it would be: A great concert by a great band captured for all to relive

Two of my earliest teenage band crushes were Led Zeppelin and KISS. They both had that mystique and aura, the kind that makes you elevate them in your mind to the mythical status of Rock Star Gods.  The kind that makes you want to play your guitar for endless hours to imitate them. There aren’t any Rock Stars anymore because there’s no mystery.  Back then we had to invent everything, create it all based on the few pictures and lyrics that came with the liner notes of the album  (In fact, for many years Zeppelin didn’t do a lot of press and they purposely didn’t put pictures, song titles, or even the band;s name on their album covers). Nowadays we have videos, MTV Cribs, the Internet and reality TV to spoil all of that and bring our heroes down to the status of the mere mortals that they really are. Ever since KISS took their makeup off in 1983, their mythical status has fallen and Gene Simmons has been beating that dead horse ever since.  However, Led Zeppelin still have it and for me they always will. And while in the past 3 decades I’ve been exposed to the inner workings of the music biz and all of the mystery of it has been stripped away, Led Zeppelin are still my heroes and unspoiled by it all. 

When we got home after the movie, I was still wound up, so I sat down and started flipping channels on the TV. Sure enough, there was The Song Remains The Same playing on one of the music channels. I sat and watched it for a few minutes, somewhat shocked at how young Zeppelin looked, but remembering just how great the music was. The song remains the same, indeed.

This is the copy of the hardcover program from the 2007 Zeppelin show that John scored for Umlaut.  James Hetfield once attempted to "steal" it from me.  True story.