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By Michael E. Miller
Twelve years ago, during the all-star ARMS Concert (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, et al.), a benefit for Faces bassist Ronnie Lane and others stricken with multiple sclerosis, a lone figure marched solemnly through the aisles of Madison Square Garden holding aloft a handmade sign. It read: "Plant and Page Must Reunite." Not should reunite, mind you, but must reunite. As if it were urgent. As if it were imperative. As if the fate of rock and roll depended on Led Zeppelin's singer and guitarist getting back together.
Two years later, that guy's wish came true, if only temporarily, when the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin (guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones), accompanied by drummers Phil Collins (yes, him) and Chic's Tony Thompson, played together at Live Aid. In 1988 Page-Plant-Jones reconvened, this time with drummer Jason Bonham, the son of deceased Led Zep drummer John Bonham, as part of Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary bash. But except for those one-off shows, plus a less formal musical reunion at young Bonham's wedding reception, Led Zep stayed resolutely unreunited, with the trio persuing solo careers of varying success and creative intrepidness.
Until early 1994. That's when Page and Plant began collaborating on No Quarter, recorded on location in Wales (two songs) and Morocco (three songs), and in front of a TV studio audience in London (nine songs); MTV taped the sessions and broadcast them in October as a special called Unledded. Notably, Page and Plant excluded Jones from the entire project. Low-key in both concept and execution, No Quarter, released in November, consists of three new Page-Plant compositions, plus ten reconfigured and retooled Zep songs. Its sound reflects Page's long-standing -- and Plant's more recent -- fascination with world music, specifically Middle Eastern harmonics and drones, which the pair produce on No Quarter with the aid of the nine-member Egyptian Ensemble on strings and percussive exotica.
On February 26, in Pensacola, Page and Plant kicked off a yearlong international tour in support of No Quarter, winding their way south to the Miami Arena on Monday night, March 6. An album, an MTV special, a worldwide tour A that die-hard fan at the ARMS Concert must be dancing a misty mountain hop these days. Others, however, have retched in response to the resurrection of the ultimate monsters of rock. For example, this past fall, Bill Wyman (not him), music writer for the Reader, in Chicago, described Unledded this way: "The Zep songs chosen were uninteresting; the new ones forgettable; the various sites employed were uncomfortably Spinal Tap-ish; the interactions with the various exotic musicians were drearily forced."
Hmmm, maybe. And yet that assessment seems somewhat harsh, especially with the benefit of repeated listenings to No Quarter and a chance to witness Page and Plant in concert with their extensive entourage and accompanists: former Cure guitarist Porl Thompson, bassist Charlie Jones and drummer Michael Lee (both of whom have played previously with Plant), keyboardist Ed Shearmur, hurdy-gurdy player Nigel Eaton, eight members of the Egyptian Ensemble, the Miami Symphony Orchestra's string section (the tour uses local string sections at each of its stops). Plus, given the principals' lofty status in the, uh, rock pantheon, perhaps they deserve to be cut a little slack.
As Led Zeppelin's main songwriters and architects, Page and Plant chiseled out what has come to be regarded as the archetypal contemporary rock group over the course of ten albums, beginning with 1969's Led Zeppelin and ending with 1982's Coda, released after Bonham's death. First as overwrought interpreters of American blues, later as skillful rock composers, the four Brits who constituted Led Zeppelin combined equal parts bombast (think "Custard Pie") and elegance (think "All My Love"), establishing the standard for the hard-rock sound, the hard-rock on-stage performance, and the excessive hard-rock off-stage lifestyle (which consumed Bonham). Page's grinding start-stop riffs, Bonham's thunderous thud, Jones's sonic bass playing and textured keyboard work, Plant's piercing wail A all moved out like shock waves, influencing countless bands and creating a handful of imitators, from the earnest Heart (the female Led Zep) to the pathetic Kingdom Come (the cloned Led Zep).
Given that m.o., given Page's desperate career straits (in case it escaped your notice, please recall his dumb solo work and even dumber stint as guitarist for the hamfisted and dull band the Firm in the Eighties), and given Plant's recent career lull, why not reunite? Page had bugged Plant to participate in a collaboration for years, and while the latter repeatedly resisted, finally he agreed. But as Plant explains it in the press poop that accompanies No Quarter, their revived partnership "had to be new.... We had to actually expand it and develop.... What would be the point of us producing a middle-age sigh of relief from around the coffee table?"
A valid question, and one that Page and Plant cagily sidestep on No Quarter by bringing in the Egyptian Ensemble to rematrix and gently de-rockify a handful of Led Zeppelin songs A some well-known ("Kashmir," "Since I've Been Loving You"), some less immediately recognizable ("Four Sticks," "Nobody's Fault but Mine") A and lend Middle Eastern credibility to the pair's arid recent compositions. But in concert at the Arena, at least for the first half of the approximately two-hour show, Page and Plant, with Thompson, Jones, Lee, and Shearmur, sounded a great deal like Led Zeppelin, reeling off only slightly less ecstatic versions of "Thank You," "Hey Hey What Can I Do," and "Dancing Days" than Zep's recorded originals; ditto a Page-and-Plant-only acoustic interlude during which they performed "No Quarter" and the pallid new "Wonderful One."