Sunday 28 October 2012


The Hope, Brighton, 18th Oct

Early on into this gig, Carlson makes a comment which sets the tone - about being “a metalhead who became a folkie.” As a boyhood Led Zeppelin fan I never felt that was a choice I had to make, but it still sounds an intriguing journey to take. Regular readers... oh, however many times I make that joke it never tires... regular readers will know I saw Carlson's day-job band Earth this spring, and was suitably impressed. True, it was blues and country rock I detected in them more than folk, but there was still a pointer towards things nonny-nonny which might reward following.

Though for the most part what's being revived here is the folk revival – songs from Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, even the Kinks' 'Wicked Annabella'. (Which Carlson suggests was what primed him for his conversion.)

The instrumentation is pared down to guitar, vocals and a single drum, but rather than taking things back to a folky simplicity, all are overlaid with multiple effects. There's so much reverb on the singer that when she clicks her fingers she's as loud as the drummer. She sings in the 4AD style, all drama and allure, topped off by some Rapunzel hair. (A sense probably accentuated by her never speaking to the audience, and quite possibly not even looking at us.) Through the treatment and affectation I'm not sure I'd have recognised she was singing in English had I not known so many of the songs. Meanwhile Carlson does pretty much what he always does – slow, laconic guitar riffs, only one step away from drones.

Needless to say, I am not some folk purist who objects to those who raid the folk tradition for their own ends. Generations before have done that very thing, in fact what we now look back upon as the folk tradition is that very thing. There's no reason to imagine it was ever static beyond people's lack of imagination and slightly perverted wish-fulfilment. These things are like coral, it can grow bold and tall, but the only living part of it at any point is the top.

Yet I find myself wanting to like this more than I actually do. For all I say above it feels like it stays on the outside, noses pressed against a window which never opens. They feel like folk songs through a distorting glass, given warped reflection, rather than next-generation folk songs, mutated into new life. Perhaps significantly, I tended to like most the smaller number of self-composed songs.

If the folk influence on Earth is more buried, it's perhaps all the more effective for all that. Putting Carlson's expansive guitar lines inside song structures doesn't add to them, it corrals them, fences in their borderlessness.

File under 'interesting effort.' And remind me next time he's back in town with Earth.

Two tracks from London a few months ago, but pretty much the same set minus the drummer. The first track with the voice-over rather than vocals... I wish the whole set had gone more in that direction. If I recall rightly, for some reason in Brighton he did that against a recording.


Okay, a disclaimer! I didn't actually see Led Zeppelin live in the last few weeks. This is the film of their one-off reunion gig performed back in 2007, as a tribute to Atlantic records boss Ahmet Ertegun. But it was a chance to see one of the finest bands of the Seventies, quite possibly of all time, a band of whom I've been a huge fan since my early teens. And that feeling seemed infectious in Brighton's Duke of Yorks cinema, with people clapping and cheering after numbers and generally behaving as much as possible as if we were really at a live gig. (With that inevitable staple of gigs, a few choosing to behave like total assholes, but never mind that now...)

The reviews from the time... turns out, they were pretty much spot on. Not only do the band still have it, they may even be better live now than before – for they've finally cut those uber-long guitar solos and twenty-minute drum workouts which drew so much punky disdain. The result is a band who press the right buttons and then just keep pressing them.

But there's something more. When singer Robert Plant introduced a song they've never played before, I briefly wondered if they'd written a whole new track. In fact it was 'For Your Life' from the album 'Presence.' Which was actually their least well-receive album. (Wikipedia notes without irony it was “the slowest-selling studio album by the band... only managing to achieve triple-platinum certification in the United States.” They never toured it at the time (though they did perform subsequently). And there's a sense of unfinished business here – for that album's sound dominates the gig, even when they're playing tracks from other times.

It's truly great art when it can straddle apparent contradictions. The classic Zeppelin fanzine was called 'Tight But Loose', (inevitably now a website,) which gives us a clue which particular contradiction the band were able to overcome. While they could pound out heavy riffs with the best of them, they were of course never confined to that. Yet that masks a more important point. And even when they were doing that they never sounded regimented or plodding, the way it did with so many copycat bands.

Except 'Presence' pushed things towards that tight end like they'd never been before. Any fan can tell you why it couldn't be toured, Plant was laid up following a bad traffic accident. And that sense of confinement, combined with problems booking studio time, produced a strange mix of desperation and urgency which came to characterise the album. At a time where there was a virtual competition to stay in the studio as long as possible, 'Presence' was done in a mere eighteen days.

It was leaner, punchier, less flamboyant than anything before. When I first played it in my teenage bedroom I had the same confused reaction as anyone else, and didn't listen to it again for months. But I gradually came to understood it simply was doing what it wanted rather than what I had come to expect. Nowadays, I think of it as second only to 'Physical Graffiti.' (Ironically it was succeeded by 'The Song Remains The Same', the double-live album dedicated to the uber-long guitar solos and drum workouts which 'Presence' cut against, the only Zeppelin album I didn't keep hold of.)

It's possible that the much-delayed performing of 'Presence' has as much to do with the gig's new sound as changing popular tastes. Certainly 'The Song Remains the Same', from the band's most prog-friendly album 'Houses of the Holy', is the nearest thing to a misfire in the gig. (Though admittedly the version of 'No Quarter', from the very same album, is superb.)

The only downside of this domination of 'Presence's sound is that, like the album itself, it cuts out the softer, more acoustic side of the band. Early tours had a midsection where the band would don barstools to get folky. The only comparable tracks here alternate folky with rocky sections such as 'Ramble On' and the inevitable 'Stairway to Heaven.'

Despite all this adulation, I am happily agnostic over whether the band reform again or not. Their final album, 'In Through The Out Door' was already pushing in a post-Zeppelin direction, and notably is the only album not be get visited in this gig. Drummer John Bonham's death, however tragic and untimely, may well have just accentuated the inevitable. Plus I saw Plant's new outfit, the Band of Joy, at the Electric Proms last year, and thought them excellent. Should they ever play again, I would certainly have no complaints. Should they all be too busy with new business to look back at the old days... well, we have our memories and this film.

Tracklist for the gig is here. (And yes that's right, they don't actually play 'Celebration Day'!)

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