Ever since the breakup of Led Zeppelin due to the untimely death of drummer John Bonham, fans have hankered for some sort – any sort, really – of reunion. There have been some teases – Live Aid, the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary celebration, Knebworth ’90 – but nothing of any real lasting effect. In fact, Page and Plant seemed satisfied occasionally guesting on each other’s albums (Plant’s Now and Zen, Page’s Outrider). Nothing inspired them enough to embark on a full-length project together.
At least, not until MTV called.
According to the interview included on the 2004 reissue of this 1994 MTV Unplugged concert, the offered opportunity of returning to the lands that had inspired some of their most creative work (“Kashmir,” most of Led Zeppelin III) was simply too good to pass up. The core of the DVD is the concert in London with the city’s Metropolitan Orchestra accompanying Page, Plant, and their chosen backing band “providing the foundation” for the production: Porl Thompson on guitar and banjo, Charlie Jones on bass and percussion, and Michael Lee on drums and percussion. (Lee’s animated style could easily form the basis of a cartoon character but he doesn’t approach the power of Bonham – who is conspicuously absent on the new “When the Levee Breaks” – though not for lack of trying.)
This live performance is intercut with tracks filmed in the Welsh countryside (so beautiful on the new transfer that the Welsh tourism bureau should use it for promotion) and on the streets of Marrakesh in Morocco. The setlist is a combination of prized Led Zeppelin tunes and new songs written for the occasion. Although the classic tracks far outshine the new material, there are no real duds included, and the experience of working together again was inspiring enough to the duo to spawn their next studio collaboration, Walking into Clarksdale. (The video for that album’s “Most High” is included as an extra along with a rehearsal recording of “Black Dog” from the American Music Awards.)
As a long-time Led Zeppelin fan, I was eager to hear the new versions and was surprised to find that the ones that sound best are those that are tweaked only slightly. British Indian jazz singer Najma Akhtar stands in for Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention) on “The Battle of Evermore,” stealing the show to the result of tremendous applause. Also, the pure energy behind the performance of “Gallows Pole” actually improves on the original Led Zeppelin III version – which was already my favorite track – turning into a veritable runaway train. Even Plant seems caught off-guard when it ends. (I find it nothing short of bewildering that Plant’s fumbling of the lyrics to “Thank You” not only made it into the finished product but also was released to radio.) This is not to say that the new songs (“City Don’t Cry,” “The Truth Explodes,” “Wah Wah,” and “Wonderful One”) are unworthy, they’re simply unmemorable. (I didn’t even notice the exclusion of “Yallah” until I was comparing program lists for this review.)
When placed side by side with the (shortened for television) VHS version I originally recorded from MTV, there simply is no comparison. The sound and picture are incredibly crisp and clear. In fact, I was sometimes distracted from the music by the quality of the greens and blues. And the music itself, in addition to having an expanded track listing, surpasses the sound of the original CD pressing (I have not heard the new remastered CD), making the CD sound somewhat muddy in comparison. Sounds I had never heard before are now crystalline. Yet, in all of this, there is something missing, and it’s not just bassist John Paul Jones. Perhaps it is just the sense that it was done for the money (though I can’t really fault Plant for that; he has said openly that Page is the one who has gotten rich off the legacy), but the fellows’ hearts just don’t seem to be fully invested in it. And I can’t believe they let that punny title pass. “Unledded,” indeed! As far as the Led Zep canon goes, this barely places, but it’s definitely one of the most consistently entertaining things either of them has done since the breakup. Your taste for rock and roll injected with world music will dictate whether you are a repeat viewer, but I can’t imagine any Page or Plant fan being without No Quarter.
(MTV, 1994; Rhino, 2004)