Friday, November 7, 2008

Note-for-note recitation: Classic Albums Live reprises Zeppelin's debut LP

Last night, I caught an 8 p.m. show by Classic Albums Live. The concept is simple: Musicians replicate a classic album, song for song, word for word, note for note, sound for sound. These musicians are experts in their craft and pay exquisite attention to detail.

They were playing Led Zeppelin's first album, from "Good Times Bad Times" on through "How Many More Times." I saw the fourth of six performances in two weeks during a homestand at Paradise Live in Hollywood, Fla. It was definitely worth $20 to witness these professionals pay tribute to Led Zeppelin by repeating the nine songs as they appeared in the final mix on the album recorded 40 years ago last month.

First of all, it takes more than four people to do what Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham accomplished in the studio. For most songs, there were five people onstage, with one guitarist handling the acoustic parts and the other handling the electric lines. A few times, a keyboardist added himself to the mix. Other times, the group dwindled down to a fourpiece. For one song, guitarist Rob Phillips shuffled between the electric strapped to him and the acoustic on a stand. The singer stayed away from playing instruments except for his harmonica solo on "You Shook Me" and also playing the part of guest tabla player Viram Jasnai on the acoustic instrumental "Black Mountain Side." The rhythm section of bass and drums kept the tempo consistent and the groove tight all throughout the night.

When I say these guys play everything, I'm not referring just to the notes you'd read off of sheet music. That would be too simple. Of course you'll hear the bass drum's insistent shuffle behind the second half of the guitar solo on "I Can't Quit You Baby." There's a lot more to them than that. They're also replicating everything as far as the subtleties that come from overanalyzing a song. So when Plant laughs off-mic in the second verse of "You Shook Me," you can be sure to see vocalist Nick Hildyard put on a smile and do that too.

And the crowning moment of the night came during "I Can't Quit You Baby" when I knew coming up was the one instance toward the end of his guitar solo that Jimmy Page strikes a power chord a split second too early. It's something I've seen Jimmy discuss in an interview, claiming it was intentional and not a mistake. I wondered if even this intricacy woud come out when reproduced onstage by fiery axeman Dom Polito. It was. He did it. And I marvelled.

But immediately after he played the chord that sounds too early, the bass player mistakenly followed him! That wasn't in the sheet music!

One of my absolute favorite things about Led Zeppelin, from listening to their official and unofficial live recordings and comparing them to the studio renditions of their songs, is the onstage improvisation. The group never performed a song the same way twice. So it was odd to be attending a performance of live musicians playing what to my ears were meticulous run-throughs of those studio renditions. The way the group happened to perform the songs in the studio on that one particular take that made it to vinyl is the way these performers rehearse it and play it night after night without any variation.

I think I would find that infuriating. If I were a guitarist who was restricted to churning out identical nine-minute readings of "Dazed and Confused" every night and, in the process, refrain from the improvements Page added to the song over the course of six years of playing it live, night after night, I would only be frustrated. My creativity would be stunted, and I wouldn't dig that. How long would I last?

But just as I was thinking that during "Dazed and Confused," the band was reprising the main theme of the song having played such a tight rendition of the segue from the violin bow solo. And the reason this band was so tight was because Led Zeppelin was tight on that part of the album. It probably is the tightest Led Zeppelin ever played that, and it made it onto the album and finds itself being repeated meticulously 40 years later by some afficianados. It must be an honor for them to be duplicating such a great and tight version of that song.

And of every song.

So maybe it's not so bad after all!

1 comment:

  1. great review. it is our sincere pleasure to reproduce those incredible songs as they were recorded. nobody in the band minds not improvising. it's not our place. we didn't write it. we will leave the improvising to Jimmy. There aren't a lot of people out there who can replicate the studio solos note for note. I am honored to perform with players who have the ability. Thanks for coming to our show.


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