Review Summary: The best official representation of this band's live sound on record.
Led Zeppelin was pretty good at making a statement in the studio. A combination of strong musicianship and Jimmy Page’s clear idea of what he wanted the band to sound like on record resulted in a well sculpted, organic studio package. This is all very good and well, but that isn't what made them the legend they are today. They took the world by force on stage, filling giant arenas with people and projecting a sound to match. They were louder, bolder, and more experimental live, often expanding a song into a 20 minute medley or jam. This method was how they managed to fill venues time after time, how they came to embody the idea of “arena rock,” and how the west was won. What a fitting title for an album representing their live sound at the height of their career.
Formed from tapes long thought lost, the concerts that make up this album, one on June 25th, 1973 at the L.A. Forum and the other two days later at the Long Beach arena, and are meshed together, sometimes with songs individually cherry picked, sometimes with tracks quite literally blended, mixing bits and pieces from both version of the song from both shows to create a kind of über-concert. Additionally, whatever audience banter there might have been was edited out of the final product. It may dishearten some to hear that this as much a creation of studio trickery as it is raw energy, but with no knowledge of the album’s creation no one would suspect this was not the original, untampered with tapes. If this bothers you, though, if you would rather experience the show in unadulterated audio purity, turn instead to the bootleg recording Burn like a Candle, which contains the June 25th performance in its entirety.
The contents of these performances are stretched across three discs, three sets if you will, and contain strong selections from their first four albums and several completed numbers from their unreleased Houses of the Holy LP. The first of these features 10 songs of approximately the same length they were on album. The sound, however, is nothing like what you would hear on their albums. From the opening moments of “Immigrant Song,” the band explodes with a fury often indicated, but never fully expressed in the studio. Page noodles more, Plant wails more, and John Paul Jones holds everything together with driving bass lines, while Bonham beats the ever-loving *** out of his drum kit. It becomes quite obvious that this is a band in equal parts with no clear leader, even though Page and Plant hold the role of “frontman” the most obviously. There are some wonderful additions and alterations to a few of these tracks, most notably the altered guitar work on “Stairway to Heaven,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and particularly “Heartbreaker” whose cadenza like guitar solo has been extended several minutes.
But the most impressive part of the first disc is the obvious display of dynamic contrast between the rockers and the more acoustic numbers and within the songs themselves. Present on their albums, it is much more pronounced here, particularly with the augmented intensity of their heavier songs. Again, “Heartbreaker” is an obvious example. There are moments where he brings the volume of his guitar down to almost nothing. It would have been all too easy to blast away; the amps were likely cranked up to 11 the entire time and the pure energy of the performance would have likely captivated many for the duration of the performance. Instead, they offer the contrast required to make presentation truly exceptional.
Within the next two discs there are three extended jams that total almost 70 minutes in length together. This is what the band was known for, and these tracks are among the most interesting, if not the best or most engaging songs on the album. It’s easy to dismiss them as indulgent swill, but the execution of these tracks is remarkably strong, especially considering the high standard held to any work that stretches on past the limit of reasonable endurance. Between these jams are moments of brief reprieve, shorter compositions that function on about the same level as the first disc. Particularly good are the two short numbers on the third disc, “Rock and Roll” and “The Ocean.”
The first of these jams, “Dazed and Confused,” features an extended bowed solo from Page and riffs from songs that were likely incomplete at the time, such as “The Crunge.” It’s good, but it drags a bit during the more experimental moments. Of course, that was the point, to allow for experimentation not typically found in the tight arrangements of their studio work; however, the result was likely much more enjoyable live than on record.
The other two jams, “Moby Dick,” and “Whole Lotta Love,” are much better. The former many will recognize as the drum solo that concludes Led Zeppelin II, and while that one isn’t bad, this one is incredible. This is the reason that the most ardent Led Zeppelin fans will viciously proclaim that John Bonham is the best rock drummer who ever lived. It begins and ends with a simple and generic blues riff, but sandwiched between are 18 minutes of furious, unaccompanied drum solo. Despite all of its technical flourish as it cycles through time signatures, tempos, and dynamics, the most remarkable feature of this piece is just how much melody he imbues in the drum kit. This sense of melody is exactly what prevents the song from growing exhausting and draining to the listener.
“Whole Lotta Love,” offers a third type of jamming. Rather than soloing, we get a medley, a mashing of mostly jazz and early rock covers blended together with a distinctly Led Zeppelin sound. They impressively manage to maintain a sense of musical continuity despite the variation and incongruous nature of some of the tunes and bookend many with pure soloing. Of the three 20+ minute tracks, this one is the best simply by condensing almost an album's worth of material into a single, cohesive track.
Yet for all of its moments of excellence, it still suffers many of the flaws found in most live albums. While there is an increase in intensity, it is at the expense of quality and precision. No live show is perfect, but while an audience might not notice or regard it while listening live, the tiniest details are often fully exposed once it’s preserved in something permanent. No matter how strong something is inherently it will never quite be the same. Paul Gonsalves famous tenor sax solo will never create the pandemonium on record as it did with Duke Ellington’s band at Newport, nor will Led Zeppelin impress or inspire quite as much here as they did in June 1973. At the same time, as far as live records go, this is probably one of the best at creating the illusion of a concert. Despite its exhaustive length, it’s easy to get lost in the music and suspend the disbelief for just a moment that you are experiencing Led Zeppelin live.