In 1998, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page put aside Arabic strings, some enmities, and John Paul Jones again, for what was a rock’n’roll tour of spare but still historic proportions, but definitely NOT Led Zeppelin, ok?
In a two-part Wind Back Wednesday, P&P talk freely and amusingly from the whitest corner of Kansas City, Mo.
As an aside, I broke the ice with a coolly indifferent Page, while waiting for his partner, when I confessed my teenage aversion to Led Zeppelin had been crushed underfoot by hearing Achille’s Last Stand and the album Presence (Page’s favourite it turns out) at a friend’s party.
Come back next week for part 2 of this conversation.
PAGE, PLANT AND THE PERFECT MOMENT
NO, YOU wouldn't call this crowd Kansas City's finest.
Sturdy chaps, certainly - no evidence of male pattern bulimia here. Quite possibly the salt of the earth - after all, they do like to refer to their State of Missouri and its neighbours as "the heartland".
And seemingly fond of their beers - the ones they clutch in one hand while clutching their bleached girlfriends in sprayed-on stonewashed denim or short leather with the other.
Those things you could guess, but there are two things very clear as the big basketball barn that is Kemper Arena fills on this mild early summer night: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant can still pull an audience, 30 years after Led Zeppelin first struck a note in anger; and this is the whitest and least fashion-conscious audience it is possible to find outside a Christian revival meeting.
In other words, not an audience noted for its irony or rampant self-awareness.
It's not on the menu, not when they've paid their $US25 ($40) for a night of "rock 'n rollll", not when they are going to hear songs they grew up with, and have been hearing on classic rock stations virtually ever since. Not when the volume is high, the testosterone count higher and God is in his heaven dressed as Jimmy Page with a double-necked guitar.
So when Robert Plant introduces the Zeppelin standard Gallows Pole with the line, "This is a song which will probably turn up on the next Pearl Jam album", you can almost hear the cogs crunching in an audience that would be heartland territory for the reigning kings of neo-stadium rock, Pearl Jam: was he having a go at Pearl Jam? He couldn't be, could he? What the . . .
The next day, Plant is amused and unapologetic, while Page watches.
"You know how it is, that Going to California track they've recorded which nobody notices [has] a resemblance to our Going To California," he says, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth, his mind surely remembering the decades of derision from those who accused Zeppelin of ripping off the original blues legends.
"A song like Gallows Pole, which has such an amazing past - goodness knows where it came from; nobody knows. It's supposed to be a 17th-century English air - and it could end up anywhere. It was just a hoot, considering they're so young and alternative and original and hallowed for their purity."
The KC crowd didn't know whether to laugh or get angry, I tell him, and Page leans forward, flashing a fuck 'em if they can't take a joke grin: "Good".
Jimmy Page is feeling good; he's feeling great . . . he's feeling almost untouchable.
THREE years ago Robert Plant and Jimmy Page broke a self- imposed 15-year fast not only to write together again but to play again the songs they made famous with Led Zeppelin, the biggest band of the '70s, the most fabled, most dynamic, most-likely-to-be-declared-as-dinosaurs quartet of a decade marbled by excess.
They were without their bassist/keyboard player John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham (whose death in 1980 had had the three others declaring an end to the band and an end to public performances of their songs) and on the No Quarter album and on tour they steadfastly refused to call themselves anything but Page and Plant.
Furthermore, they filled the stage with a small orchestra, a choir, an eight-piece Arabic string section and a hurdy-gurdy player.
It wasn't Led Zeppelin, they insisted, but there was no doubt that the hundreds of thousands who saw them play on that world tour - one of the biggest-grossing tours that year - were there to see the closest thing they would ever get to Led Zeppelin.
And they got it, with these two fiftysomethings sometimes storming, sometimes waltzing through a back catalogue bettered only by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They did it, too, with a nod to past glories and a recognition of the inherent stupidity of rock 'n' roll done by anyone over the age of 17.
And, what's more, they did it so bloody well.
This year, though, they came armed with Walking Into Clarksdale, an album of new material, co-written with another Jones (their new bass player, Charlie Jones, no relation) and the almost-Bonham dynamo drummer Michael Lee. It resonated with mid-period Zeppelin but had far less retrovision than their legion of imitators, eschewing pyrotechnics for depth.
And now on stage it is just four again, a straight rock 'n' roll show of power and fluidity, Zeppelin songs and new material. It is even bringing in some blasphemous talk from Plant.
"[No Quarter] was an achievement, but although it was a fantastic thing to be in the middle of emotionally, sonically and so on, this is more rewarding because it is straight down the line, what we sort of did [with Zeppelin]. Now we find we perhaps do it," he pauses, considers . . . "better. It just feels better.
“The general standard is so, the consistency is so high, so good, and so much fun, too."
Page, who has been nodding quietly as Plant describes this new sensation, interrupts. "It's getting scary though," he laughs. "Because we're getting so good it's like, what's coming next?"
Plant takes it further, referring to a question of whether they aim to take their audience past the expected.
"Their preconceptions are that we will be carrying on in a sedate, No Quarter fashion, because that was the last inkling of what we did. To come out and go like this has been a major shock for so many people. They've been talking it up on radio here like it really is the second coming. Though I may have left it a bit late in the day."
They both laugh, almost egging each other on. You went straight to the third coming?
"That's right," smiles Plant. "That takes some stamina. Let's not beat around the bush, we're well past our prime, but we really do perform miracles at times. Our greying compadres have chosen the rocking chair. Even Howling Wolf didn't sit in a rocking chair."
Part two of this interview will appear in Wind Back Wednesday next week.