The rarity with which Led Zeppelin was seen on television and film during their 1970s heyday amplifies the importance of Atlantic’s double DVD set of four concert performances and a handful of Euro TV appearances. It chronicles the band, known generally as a stunning live act capable of occasionally being downright dreadful, in a way no audio set ever could. The visuals capture them blossoming as an off-kilter blues band in a 1970 embrace of multiple non-rock ‘n’ roll influences up through their preening years (’73 and ’79) when they were writing the blueprint for every hard rock band that has followed.
First disc captures the year-old band just after the release of “Led Zeppelin II” at London’s Royal Albert Hall. They began with the stage presence of a ’60s act: Singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page huddle around drummer John Bonham for nearly all of the vigorous 1 hour 42 min. perf.
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The concert finds them blending 1930s blues, Eddie Cochran and electricity and adding so much weight to the music that it often teeters on collapse — Bonham’s drumming, in particular, daringly evades a locked-in beat that pairs with Page’s unhinged solos in a unique confluence. Plant offers a host of guttural noises and moans to get through songs’ more abstract passages, and those are plentiful; much as their first two albums flashed their commitment to song form, the Albert Hall show explored the outer sonic reaches of nearly all the compositions.
Disc also includes TV show perfs — four versions of “Dazed and Confused,” all of them stellar — though its obvious the band was never comfortable on a set.
Second disc is the much more familiar Zeppelin — the open shirts, the strutting, Plant’s wail and Page’s astonishing fretwork. Biggest surprise may well be the fastidious nature of Bonham’s drumming, known more for its fury and flair than its exactness.
An acoustic set from Earls Court in 1975 is shot almost completely in close-ups, a contrast to the explosive outdoor Knebworth show in 1979. “Going to California” from the former and “Kashmir” from the latter may well be the best tracks in the set — “Misty Mountain Hop” from Madison Square Garden in ’73 is a contender, too — but the concerts’ most fascinating moments come when Page reinvents classic material such as “Stairway to Heaven” (’75) and “Dazed and Confused” (’70).
Big and bloated as the act became, DVD exposes their ability to lock in as a single unit; as the stages grew larger and their music more precision-oriented, their ability to listen to one another and anticipate moves ensured their ability to keep the concerts cogent affairs. Granted, there is no complete three-hour show on record here. Atlantic’s releasing of live Zep — the audio CD “How the West Was Won” culled from 1972 appearances in L.A. and Long Beach — comes at a time when hard rock is in a confused state with few leaders beyond Metallica. Watching the progenitors can clue in countless performers how to take it up a notch, retain integrity and keep auds coming back for more.