The Songs Do Not Remain the Same

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in Concert

By Ralph Sidway

No, If anything, they're even better. Far from sounding like the "tired old retreads" some reviewers would have you believe, these two veterans, backed by a snappy young band and with swirling strings and the hypnotic rhythms of the Hossam Ramzy Egyptian Ensemble, have further redefined the Led Zeppelin catalog and added colors and textures to the music beyond anyone's expectations.

With a very flexible set list, the three shows this reviewer saw were each unique: very tight, but with an obvious spontaneity and playfulness. From the opening chords of "Thank You" to the spectacular finale of "Kashmir," these guys seemed to be having the time of their lives. A swift barrage to open the show, featuring the frenetic "Bring It On Home," "Celebration Day," and "Ramble On," took the audience by storm and then the fun began. Although Plant has mercilessly teased Page about his one-off collaboration with David Coverdale, at Cinci and Indy the set included a blistering rendition of "Shake My Tree" (from the Coverdale Page album), with Robert Plant making the song his own and in the process giving Page his due: the staccato-style opening riff and surprisetime-shifts are classic Page.

(Page even treated the faithful to a dose of theremin, the sonic wizardry device used in the live performances of "Whole Lotta Lovel") In return homage, Page and Plant added "Calling to You," from Plant's Fate of Nations release and this time it was Jimmy Page who exercised proprietary rights over his partner's solo effort, transforming the already arabesque guitar theme into an otherworldly siren-call, while the three huge video screens showed clips from the duo's Middle Eastern treks. Easily their favorite number to stretch out on, they jammed for a delightful eternity, whisking the crowd away with a couple of verses from The Doors ("Light My Fire" one night, "Break On Through" the next) and then a brief interlude from "Dazed and Confused," before crashing back into "Calling to You" to close the set.

Other surprises included a haunting version of The Cure's "Lullaby," with Porl Thompson (former Cure guitarist) and Charlie Jones on bass combining on the dirge-like opening chords, before Page joined in, melding the synthesizer and the guitar parts into one brilliant, bluesy theme.

With Thompson and Jones, Michael Lee on drums, Ed Shearmur on keyboards and Nigel Eaton on hurdy-gurdy (who held the audience spellbound during a brilliant solo spot — at decibels surely no other of the 14th century instruments has ever before been played!) contributing to the mix, the more straightforward tunes breathed with a new life. Porl Thompson's presence was especially well used. Coming and going as the occasion demands, his rhythm and second-lead guitar work freed Page to really cut loose. The prime example is "The Song Remains the Same," where Page plays the double-neck Gibson that has become one of his trademarks, while Thompson adds the fills and leads literally note-for-note off the album. After two-thirds of the song has flown by and one could be tempted to fear that Page just isn't nimble enough anymore to let fly with those incredible 12-string solos (he is, after all, 51, an age when most are starting to look toward retiring to the farm!), suddenly, there he is! Turning back the clock and ripping through the final solo and crescendo finale as if it were 1973 or '75 all over again.

And really, that sums up the import of this tour. Plant has been in great shape for years, recording and touring constantly and looked incredibly muscular and fit in his various sleeveless vests. The various local symphonies employed to lift such songs as "Since I've Been Loving You," and "Friends" into the stratosphere and the Egyptian Ensemble, who combined with the former on "Four Sticks," "In the Evening," and "Kashmir" to weave a new form of rocking, Arabian Nights-aural tapestry, performed nearly flawlessly. But the big question mark was Jimmy Page.

His tour with David Coverdale was cut short, as was his 1988 Outrider tour. His health has been questionable for some time and the grind of a tour schedule seems to be his bane. To add to that pressure, don't forget the three huge video screens, showing close-up his every solo.

No margin for error here! But banish any concern. The maestro is back and in rare form. Dancing, strutting, stalking, swinging and swaggering around the stage, he performed like a new man. His energy seemed boundless, as when he spontaneously leaped from his chair towards the end of "Four Sticks," or teased the crowd with his off-kilter dynamics on "Gallows Pole." He showed his prowess on three or more Les Pauls, his Telecaster (for "In the Evening") and the Gibson double-neck, as well as a host of acoustic guitars in various tunings, not the least of which was his black double-neck Ovation.

At Cincinnati, their first show after a two-week hiatus, midway through "Calling to You" during Page's big solo, something clicked. You could tell from the big screen he was oblivious to his surroundings; he was "in the zone." Playing like his fingers were on fire, as if he had been transported to another place, he soared and plunged, like an electric bird of prey.

When the song crescendoed to its climax, Page, dripping with sweat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, shook his head in disbelief and shot a look at Porl Thompson as if to say, "Can you believe it?!" With his once-again soul mate grinning from ear to ear, Plant stepped up to the mic and coyly asked, "Can you feel it?" The response was deafening. The magic was – and is — back.