Thursday, July 23, 2009

Warming up

On this day in 1979, Led Zeppelin performed the first of a pair of gigs in Copenhagen, Denmark, on consecutive days, as a warm-up to the first Knebworth concert in England, which was less than two weeks away.

It had always been Led Zeppelin's tradition, after having been out of practice, to embark on some isolated dates prior to a major tour. In the mind of Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, those gigs would always provide solace to an unrehearsed band.

In addition, Led Zeppelin's rig was now sporting new improvements to the light show shipped in from the United States, which provided more of a reason for the band to get everything right ahead of time.

These two shows were presented in front of limited-capacity crowds of 2,000, compared to the crowds 100 times that size that would see Led Zeppelin in the coming weeks. Far fewer onlookers would be disappointed if, for some reason, one facet of the light show, for example, was to malfunction unexpectedly.

And that's exactly what happened. Good contingency plan! Knock the kinks out of the way before you attempt playing in your own country to nearly every fan of yours, young and old. At the Falkoner Theatre on this Monday night gig, technical glitches were inescapable. As Dave Lewis chronicled in his Tight but Loose fanzine, "There were major production problems in assembling the new lighting, the rig proving too big for the arena, which resulted in a blown generator and delayed the gig by nearly two hours."

Eric Kornfeldt's Copenhagen review published in the New Musical Express details just how grotesque these glitches actually were. He wrote: "Come concert day and trouble began early. The stage equipment failed repeatedly during soundcheck. Then the lighting wasn't receiving the correct power and the crew sent out pleas for a mobile generator. When they finally located one it still proved too weak, though it seemed like it would keep a medium size town in juice. Lasers and lights fused all around, and the band decided they'd only use half their lighting after all."

One other unavoidable kink in Copenhagen was kind of an arbitrary one, perhaps meaningful only in the cosmic sense. That was the fact that these two Copenhagen gigs played out on exactly the same dates as the Oakland Coliseum concerts in 1977. Whether or not the coincidence was noted at the time, the calendar showed July 23 and 24, which might have evoked memories of being in Bill Graham's company on the North American tour that was aborted immediately thereafter, upon the death of Karac Plant back in England, the 6-year-old boy having suddenly died from a stomach infection.

Further memories of that aborted tour must have concentrated on the violent backstage incidents of July 23, 1977, that led to the arrests of John Bonham and three others in the Led Zeppelin entourage two days later. The criminal case against them had been resolved, with the four defendants still carrying out suspended prison sentences and having their names inextricably linked to the stigma of criminal charges resulting in a nolo contendere plea. The situation had also given rise to a $2 million civil case. Fortunately for Led Zeppelin, none of the defendants was required to appear in court, and so the civil suit was never heard.

All of this, including the death of Plant's son, was in the past. With the couple rejoicing in the new son who was by now on the way, Plant had taken once again to live concerts, appearing in the interim here and there with various groups of his choice ranging from Melvin Giganticus and the Turd Burglars to the much more identifiable Bad Company, the latter show involving the near-complete Led Zeppelin lineup, save John Paul Jones, at a Birmingham show. Not quite road-tested, yet still hinging on road-weary, the lineup of Led Zeppelin turned its back on the hardship of the past and the long layovers between shows and faced the Copenhagen and Knebworth dates with bravado. They had lots to reclaim, after all.

Onstage, the band was a slicker version of its previous self, with certain emphasis placed on scaling down the solo numbers. For "No Quarter," John Paul Jones held his grand piano solo to within four minutes, which was quite the accomplishment considering twice that length not so long ago. Gone from the set list was "Moby Dick," replaced instead by John Bonham's minute-and-a-half-long tympani solo, proving to be an apt segue between Page's four-minute guitar solo and onstage spectacle and the only other new number besides "Hot Dog," which was "In the Evening." This led up to the main set's nine-minute grand finale, "Stairway to Heaven," secure in its position as the pre-encore concert closer since the first days of 1975.

That all being said, Page did maintain a spot for his solo performance of "White Summer/Black Mountain Side" during the Copenhagen shows and the Knebworth concerts that followed. In fact, it was this instrumental that caused reviewer Erik von Lustbaden's biggest upset at the warm-up show on July 23. He wrote, in a piece published in Sounds, that he opted to find another source of entertainment while the guitarist played unaccompanied onstage: "I went for a piss, bought a bar of chocolate, ate it, had a sit down, made some notes, went back in and he was still playing it!"

That was the inescapable aura of Led Zeppelin. Even when the band wanted to keep each song to four or five minutes tops, few ever did. The first six songs of the set were about six minutes or less, while "Hot Dog" -- unrecognizable because the new album hadn't yet been released -- clocked in at just over three minutes.

The New Musical Express review of the developments in Copenhagen proved reproachful. "A showing like this one in Copenhagen is pointless and ultimately damaging," it said. "They were no more than a quartet of sloppy, uninspired old men, a relic from the past. There was so little feeling inherent in the set that for the most part it was like watching a fully automated factory producing an endless string of chords that neither musicians nor audience cared about."

It's hard to tell how representative these reviewers' comments were of the thousands of others who attended.

One audience recording has surfaced from each concert, revealing what Robert Plant said to the faithful gathered. In his opening remarks on July 23, he acknowledged that "it's been eight years since we were here last time." (Really, it was closer to only six years.)

Plant followed this up with a resolution that there would be less talking and more playing, although he did use an opportunity after "Hot Dog" to reveal what he might have meant by the lyric, "I'll never go to Texas anymore." Plant said, "That was because we were very heavily influenced by the P.A. and lighting company who charges so much money, we had to write that song, and they got the royalties. That's why only half the lights are working."

Plant elicited fewer comments of note on July 24 in Copenhagen, except for his sole remark during a hold-up in preparing John Paul Jones's instrumentation for "Ten Years Gone," consisting of the heavy triple-neck guitar and a set of bass pedals. He said, "Very shortly, we shall be doing 'Eleven Years Gone.'"

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