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Shadows Taller Than Our Souls

 

Led Zeppelin: How The West Was Won

Atlantic, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: July 15, 2003

By Laurence Station

Looking back, it's easy to see why the music press vilified Led Zeppelin during the band's '70s heyday. The group actively avoided interviews, didn't release singles, cultivated a mystical, larger than life persona and made loud, indulgent, sonically self-fellating creations. Led Zeppelin was aloof, bombastic and, worst of all from the rock cognoscenti standpoint, appeared more concerned with connecting with its fans via the live setting than having, say, the British press sing the group's praises.

Even more galling is the fact that Led Zeppelin refused to go away after the '70s ended. Most of rock's dinosaurs went extinct or limped along, diminishing whatever legacies they had with each successively lamer release. Yes, Zeppelin broke up shortly after drummer John Bonham's death in 1980. But its music never left rock radio, and its catalog continued to sell respectable numbers. The bloated rock cliché that was Led Zeppelin has simply refused to crash and burn.

Now, with the release of How The West Was Won, the first genuine commercially available live document of the band, the group's detractors must resign themselves to the fact that the Beast That Would Not Die isn't going away anytime soon. How The West Was Won, true to Zeppelin's over-the-top style, is a 3-CD behemoth, culling the best moments from a pair of 1972 Southern California concerts (June 25 and 27 at the LA Forum and Long Beach Arena, respectively, for those who think they were there but can't remember). Covering material leading up to, and including a few cuts from, the band's then-forthcoming Houses of the Holy LP, West admirably distills all that was good, bad and shamelessly extravagant about Led Zeppelin into a (not so) tidy little package.

Disc 1 contains the shorter selections (in true Led Zep parlance, this means no song longer than, say, 10 minutes), and is a fantastically succinct overview of just how much stylistic and musical ground the band covered. From the sea-churning, Valhalla-name checking rock fury of "Immigrant Song" to the laid-back acoustic strum of "That's The Way," Zeppelin displays an eclectic virtuosity rarely matched by any other band of its era. The eight-minute "Since I've Been Loving You" is a perfect example of the group exploring and expanding upon its blues-based roots, as guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones languorously stretch out the notes while quintessential frontman Robert Plant invests the material with a weary, but no less captivating, intensity. The AOR-radio played-to-death "Stairway To Heaven" actually sounds fresh and vital here, thanks in no small part to Plant's inviting asides to the audience ("Remember laughter?"), perhaps in response to the turbulent conditions in America at the time.

Discs 2 and 3 are more problematic, as they both favor the band's incredibly accomplished musical skills but expose the quartet's shamelessly excessive tendencies, as well. "Dazed And Confused" and "Whole Lotta Love" both lumber past the twenty-minute mark. There are key differences, however. "Dazed And Confused," though still a few minutes shorter than the turgid version from 1976's live album Song Remains the Same, is where the group goes into outer space, taking you along whether you care to join or not. Everything grand and grotesque about Zeppelin is laid bare in a 25-minute sprawl that contains masterful moments but is simply overdone to the point of near self-parody. By the time Plant reiterates his über-cheesy proclamation that he wants to make love "25 hours a day," you'll be far beyond dazed or confused. "Whole Lotta Love", on the other hand, spends its twenty-odd minutes more wisely, inserting a medley of old hits like "Let's Have A Party", "Hello Mary Lou" and the great "Going Down Slow" in the middle. It's a fantastic reworking/expansion of the song, and proves to be a highlight of the collection.

How The West Was Won, then, is a vital document of Led Zeppelin's formidable legacy. Yes, the band was too big and grand, and perhaps its members were convinced of their own demigod status. But isn't that part of the fun of rock 'n' roll in the first place? In the end, all the average fan wants to see is a spectacle, and damned if Led Zeppelin didn't deliver just that, crashing, thumping, slashing and strutting for all it was worth. After thirty years, it must be nice to have a live complement to the studio efforts that hinted at, but never quite captured, the outfit's full glory -- just what it was that drove so many critics crazy all those years ago. Not that Led Zeppelin was ever particularly concerned with the kind of affirmation West emphatically delivers. When you're this good, you don't have to apologize for being great.

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