September 1, 2003

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin DVD
How the West Was Won
3-CD set

“No Led Zeppelin concert was ever the same as the one before it,” says Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and nothing proves his claim better than the newly released Led Zeppelin DVD. Featuring more than five hours of previously unreleased footage, the double-DVD set traces the onstage evolution of Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, and late, great drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham—the ¨ber-foursome that defined, refined, and marked the pinnacle of arena rock as we know it.

“The Royal Albert Hall stuff is just brilliant,” says Jones without a trace of conceit, because, well, he’s undeniably right. That 1970 show opens the DVD, and it is mesmerizing. It’s a time when a youthful Led Zeppelin already had two huge albums behind them and were playing giant rooms, yet still had all the exuberance of a hungry, young band out to prove something to the world. There’s a spark in their eyes—not to mention in their playing—that isn’t present in their only other concert film, The Song Remains the Same, shot a few years later at Madison Square Garden.

“The California shows are searing as well,” says Jones of the two 1972 concerts that make up How the West Was Won, a three-CD set released in conjunction with the DVD. “Usually, by the time we got to the West Coast, we’d toured everywhere else in the States, so, naturally, we were hot. We’re just so lucky that these shows were recorded, and that the sound quality is as good as it is.”

Here, Jones recalls what it was like being one fourth of the world’s greatest jam band. —Jude Gold

Is there any one moment on the DVD that especially knocks you out?
Probably “Moby Dick.” When I saw it for the first time on the big screen in London, and everybody stood up and cheered at the end of the song, I cheered right along with them—I couldn’t help it. The DVD just pulls you in. The sound is so good, you feel like you’re at the gig. In a sense, it was my first Led Zeppelin concert.

Any moments that make you cringe?
Not really. The buttocks-clenching moments were kept to a minimum in Led Zeppelin. I always say that, at our worst, we were better than most, and when we were in top form, we were untouchable. Some of my clothes back then were a bit funny, though [laughs]. Zeppelin was a very organic, honest band, and things developed naturally. Our approach was always “Keep your eyes and ears open and pay attention,” as well as doing simple stuff that other bands might take for granted—such as showing up to rehearsals on time and really committing to the band.

But there are a zillion bands whose members really listen to each other, show up on time, and everything else, yet the magic doesn’t happen.
One thing that was different about Led Zeppelin is that we all had really wide-ranging influences—from rock, blues, soul, country, and folk to the Indian and Arabic stuff—so the music sparked off in many exciting directions. No other bands were doing that back then. And when I listen to many of today’s bands, it often sounds like the members all listen to the same music.

What was your biggest challenge being the middle man between Page’s giant guitar sound and Bonham’s huge drums?
When you get down to it, everybody’s role in the band was essentially the same, and that was simply to make Led Zeppelin sound as good as possible. Maybe that’s what was different about Zeppelin—none of our egos were bigger than the combined Led Zeppelin ego, which was huge [laughs].

Did that collective ego ever get out of control?
Couldn’t possibly have!

One thing that was magical about Led Zeppelin is that while the arrangements and riffs were very tight, the grooves were always loose.
Well, in order to be loose, you really have to know what you’re doing. For instance, if you know exactly where the beat is, you can either push it or lay back on it—without changing the tempo—and you can use that difference in feel as a musical dynamic. People will say, “What do you mean? You’re either on the beat or you’re not.” But that’s not true. Bonzo and I could fall completely backwards over the beat without losing the groove—which is fun to do sometimes.

How much of Bonham’s reputation as the world’s greatest rock drummer was his own talent, and how much of it was Jimmy Page’s remarkable ability to make his drums sound huge on recordings?
It really was Bonham. He’d sit down on horrible kits that hardly sounded any better than the cases they came in, and he still sounded like John Bonham. It was his feel, and also his authority. When he laid it down, you just felt, “Wow, that is exactly where it needs to be.” He also had this great flashy side to his playing. He loved to show off—which he could do, because he had the tools to do so.

Did you ever feel that you and the others could have done more to prevent his death?
You always think, “If I’d have done this or that it might not have happened,” but, in those days, people knew less about helping other people with those kinds of problems. And besides, none of us were in much of a position to tell other people how to live their lives. We all partied all the time.

Do you think it ever hindered the music?
No, which is probably why it never got addressed. If it came on stage, then we would have said, “Whoa, hold on.” We had a very workman-like attitude when it came to playing shows.

Do you think one reason for that professionalism is that you and Page were such experienced session musicians?
It certainly helped. As you can imagine, doing two or three sessions a day teaches you to be very disciplined. And when the day comes that you’re leading a session, you know how to keep things moving. I learned how to be a musical director and a producer simply by watching other people do it.

One thing that’s cool about Zeppelin recordings is that they’re plenty rough around the edges.
That’s a matter of knowing when you’ve got something good without beating it to death. Perfection is a very relative term. A song can be performed and recorded perfectly, yet be so completely devoid of feel that it’s actually nowhere near perfect. Even if you accidentally played A instead of B, who’s going to notice unless it seriously compromises the harmony of the song? The best results usually come from going for the take that really feels great, because the feel is what will move the whole thing along. And from our studio days, we knew that it was possible to record three songs in two hours. Led Zeppelin IV was recorded in just three weeks! Atlantic.

Joseph Spence
Happy All the Time

A huge influence on the likes of Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and Peter Lang, Spence stands as one of the most original acoustic stylists ever. Hailing from the Andros Islands in the Bahamas, the long out-of-print Happy All the Time was Spence’s first “proper” recording under his own name (he first appeared on the Smithsonian’s Folkways label release, Music of the Bahamas, Vol. 1: Bahaman Folk Guitar in 1960). Spence’s playing defies categorization. He stretches and pulls rhythms like Silly-Putty, yet he has enough propulsive groove to get your toes tapping. Harmonically, his playing may be no great shakes, but the pure, unadulterated joy that beams through is. In fact, after digging into Spence’s wonderfully idiosyncratic style, you understand why Elektra engineer Fritz Richmond went to the Bahamas in 1964 to find the elusive guitarist in hopes of recording him. When Richmond found Spence, he immediately sent a telegram back to New York. “Spence lives,” he said. “Bring 12 sets of medium bronze strings and a tape recorder.” Enough said. With two mics and a portable Nagra recorder, Happy All the Time was tracked and a musical treasure was documented. Water —Darrin Fox

Bryan Sutton
Bluegrass Guitar

In this all-acoustic instrumental outing, Sutton plays his custom Bourgeois dreadnought and battered ’42 Martin D-18 with such toneful authority and fluid speed that you’ll grin in disbelief. Even at breakneck tempos, his lines stay crisp and swinging, and he never strains in the middle of a gnarly phrase. Sutton’s sound can be summarized in one word: liquid. When soloing, he slyly incorporates ringing open strings into his fretted phrases in such a way that each note seems connected to its predecessor. So instead of hearing a succession of discrete pitches, we sense a rippling stream of melody that rises and falls in both pitch and volume. Sutton didn’t invent this flatpicking technique—we can thank Doc Watson for adapting it from the “melodic style” of banjo playing—but he zooms it to new heights. Backed by hot mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and upright bass, Sutton reinterprets traditional fiddle and banjo tunes, tackles several contemporary covers (including an offering from banjo radical Béla Fleck), and offers one bouncy original. Recorded and mixed by audio savant Bil VornDick using classic analog gear, the tracks sound focused, warm, and inviting. If you haven’t yet explored 21st-century string-band music, baptize yourself with Bluegrass Guitar. Sugar Hill. —Andy Ellis

Various Artists
Exile on Blues St

The Rolling Stones were on exile in France facing tax evasion problems when they recorded the classic double-LP Exile on Main St. in 1972—a situation that may have itself increased the band’s personal appreciation of the blues. But Jagger, Richards, and company had borrowed heavily from American blues all along, so the concept of having blues performers cover their songs was intriguing. Here, ten songs from Exile are given new spins by contemporary blues artists—most of whom happen to be guitarists. Highlights include Lucky Peterson’s wicked wah work on “Ventilator Blues,” Jeff Lang’s gorgeous resonator arrangement of “Sweet Virginia,” and Tab Benoit’s ultra-tasty boogie licks on “Shake Your Hips.”

The standout tracks, however, are Joe Louis Walker’s soulful version of “Shine a Light” and Otis Taylor’s plaintive and hypnotic deconstruction of “Sweet Black Angel.” Other tracks, such as Tommy Castro’s “Rip This Joint,” Deborah Coleman’s “Happy,” and Jimmy Thackery’s “Rocks Off,” while less than brilliant or original, are, at the very least, good clean fun. In an ideal world we’d be treated to Stones covers by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James, but, lacking that, Stones fans and blues fans alike will likely find lots to enjoy on this CD. Telarc. —Barry Cleveland

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Love gone bad, broken dreams, heartache, and regret. With a raspy voice and an extraordinary eye for detail, Texas songster Hubbard spins these and other ominous themes into exquisite vignettes of life’s darker side. But it’s guitarist and producer Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Peter Case) who brings Hubbard’s music to life with his twangy leads, rootsy strumming, and arranging savvy. Musically, Growl is quintessential roadhouse rock. Over churning train beats and dusky, minimalist bass, Hubbard picks his resonator slide with a deft touch and snarling tone. In the background, fingerpicked 6-strings lurk below swirling lap steel; clangy, Waylon Jennings-inspired Tele licks jostle chunky, “dead thumb” flat-top riffs; and mysterious tremolo throbs ominously beneath rough-hewn blues lines. Wall-to-wall vibe, y’all. Philo. —Andy Ellis

Pink Floyd
The Dark Side of the Moon

The miles of prose devoted to Pink Floyd’s watershed The Dark Side of the Moon could probably stretch to, well, the moon. Hell, the nutty speculation that has surrounded Dark Side—from the album being a covert Wizard of Oz soundtrack to the mysterious German pressing plant whose sole purpose was to churn out nothing but copies of the album—could at least get you halfway there. But there’s a reason for such a surplus of pontifications. As much as any Beatles or Stones record, Dark Side epitomizes the term “classic” as every subsequent generation manages to rediscover the album’s mélange of auditory freak-outs and songcraft. Now, thanks to the SACD (super audio compact disc) format, Dark Side is available in a killing 5.1 surround mix.

Even listening to the album on a very modest Sony home 5.1 system, the sound was quite impressive. Rather than going for sweeping, in-your-face motion, longtime Floyd engineer James Guthrie (who had already done 5.1 mixes of Floyd’s The Wall DVD and Rodger Waters’ In the Flesh SACD), chose to handle most of the panning more subtly—often using effects to “move” sounds by changing their auditory weight relative to other sounds. But this is by no means just a stereo mix with an ambient background and some elements moved to the center channel.

For example, the Uni-Vibe guitar part that opens “Breathe” swirls entirely around you, as does the synth sequence in “On the Run”—yet neither induces motion sickness. Similarly, the clock chimes in “Time” are everywhere, yet they don’t jar the listener any more aggressively than the original stereo mix. Add to this the fact that you can now hear lots of sounds that were previously masked—as well as some that were not included on previous mixes—and you have a new creation that should have millions of ’70s-era Floyd fans searching their attics for the old college bong. Capitol. —Barry Cleveland/ Darrin Fox

Hail to the Thief

Radiohead’s music-culture piss-offs are almost as impressive as the band’s smash successes and oceans of ecstatic press. These guys seem to do whatever they damn well please and still get hits. Pablo Honey, 1993: Angst-ridden underground rockers with novelty hit (“Creep”). The Bends, 1995: Stunning guitar rock, soaring songcraft, and echoes of artiness. OK Computer, 1997: A haunting, textural recasting of prog rock. Kid A, 2000: Weird sonic experiments and compositional deconstruction. Virtually no guitars posing as guitars. Amnesiac, 2001: More sound science in the service of vibe. Guitars, for the most part, still missing in action.

Which brings us to the brand new Hail to the Thief. Once again, the gang is cover fodder all over the European press, and early Web bootlegs of the album were either brilliant marketing or yet another tragedy for guitarist/ vocalist Thom Yorke to brood over. Here, the guitars are back, and they’re strange, tough, driving, fabulously emotive, and awash in cinematic textures. It’s unclear where Yorke and co-guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien each begin and end, but the circus of ideas directed (and edited) by the trio always produces familiar, yet off-beat melodies, tones, and layers. On this outing, while the quirky intros evoke the aural whimsy of Kid A and Amnesiac, everything else about the album seems scrupulously arranged and rendered solely to enhance the atmosphere of each song. But the coolest thing about Thief—and about Radiohead in general—is despite all the hype and broiling anxiety and music-as-architecture pretensions, the music sounds unfettered, uncalculated, and even joyous. Just surrender. Capitol. —Michael Molenda

Parts of the Process

Here’s a languid, easy groove album that will ease you gently out of summer’s warm carresses. The dreamy trip-hop soundscapes—brilliantly topped by the lilting vocals of Skye Edwards—are more about mood than rocking out, but that doesn’t stop guitarist Ross Godfrey from producing parts that simultaneously support the song and call attention to themselves. Check out the vibey wah-meanderings on “The Sea,” or the punchier wah swells on “Tape Loop,” or the distorted tremolo splashes on “Let Me See.” Repeated headphone listenings will also reveal supple acoustic lines, delay manipulations, and airy swells. Of course, you won’t want to miss all the other sounds—the treated Rhodes melodies, tricked-out percussion, chattering synths, sleepy horns, and on and on. (The more you listen the more you hear.) This is exquisitely arranged and produced music that utilizes
Godfrey as a sensitive colorist. But while other guitarists also fill such a role, few are as cinematically emotive as Godfrey. Listen and learn. Sire/Reprise. —Michael Molenda


Fu Manchu, Go For It…Live!. With Fu Manchu, you know exactly what you’re getting: big guitars, big riffs, and killer wah-wah-laden solos from Bob Balch. This two-CD set will keep the van a-rockin’ for a long time. SPV. —DF

Lillix, Falling Uphill. Integrity. Raw power. Jaw-dropping riffs and solos. Those words and phrases have nothing to do with this cutesy, corporate-guitar-pop concoction. The word “ick” comes to mind,
however. Maverick. —MM

Henry Kaiser and Glen Phillips, Guitar Party. The two guitarists dish up smokin’ psychedelic ’60s covers—Quicksilver, Airplane, Hendrix, Young, Byrds, etc.—and several related originals on this novel, but not novelty CD that was originally recorded in 1990. Gaff Music. —BC

Cheap Trick, Special One. From the Roger Daltrey-styled yelping of “Scent of a Woman” to the Beatle-esque songwriting to Rick Nielsen’s patented rhythm punches and riff frenzies, this is everything a geezer needs to believe in rock and roll again. Big3 Records. —MM

Ronnie Earl, I Feel Like Goin’ On. Earl is on fire throughout this howling collection of instrumental blues, which he cut live in the studio. Every track is a first take, and you can feel the adrenaline in Earl’s raw, toothy Strat tones. Stony Plain. —AE

Various artists, Guitar Ace: Link Wray Tribute. Anything that acknowledges the feral majesty of Mr. Link Wray is A.O.K. in my book. This compilation does the job by offering some cool moments (Deke Dickerson, Dave Wronski, Boss Martians, Pollo Del Mar), but the mostly sedate covers ultimately prove that the man is still the man. MuSick. —MM


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