I had heard about this project, but I just never gave much thought to what an explosive mix Page and the Crowes could be. The Black Crowes have been tearing up their native Atlanta since 1988, not to mention leaving a trail of tinnitus, spilled bongwater, and pissed-off corporate sponsors…”
by marc covert
I have become a bit jaded with the “reunion” tours that were such a hot item in the mid-to-late nineties; way back in the late 80’s I went to a show by the “reunited” BTO, only to realize I didn’t know who any of the musicians on the stage were. I think Randy Bachman’s brother Tim was up there but I’m not sure, it could very have been a friend of a friend of a Bachman brother-in-law. Even the latest Page/Plant show here in Portland left me feeling ambivalent about the whole idea; it was a great show, but seeing guys my age (38 at the time) leading their wives and kids around in the Rose Garden after the show really got to me. What I had just seen was a far cry from a real Zeppelin concert. And yes, I know, those days are gone and there is nothing anyone can do to bring them back. Hell, I only ever managed to see Led Zeppelin once in my life, at the 1977 Seattle show, so I can’t exactly wax melodic about the good old days of Zep mayhem.
But not many people can claim otherwise. While I am sure there are plenty of aging biker types out there who saw Zeppelin numerous times, they are the exception. I would remind the reader that in the 1970’s Zeppelin were HUGE, plain and simple, and their concerts were huge events, and they never did stage very many of them. So fanatical Zeppelin fans such as myself had to content themselves with endless spinning of the classic vinyl albums that were a staple in those days. And I mean endless-it would not be an exaggeration to say that I have listened to the entire Zeppelin catalog thousands of times, and I am not alone.
So when a mysterious package arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I was amazed to see inside two generic-looking CD’s. They were sent to me by Smokebox’s own John Richen, a longtime crony in all things musical, and a master at blind-siding this aging, jaded rock-n-roll-addicted fop. The stories I could relate about our debauched antics in the 80’s and early 90’s will have to wait for now. What I can say is that John has a knack for shaking me out of my recurring states of musical torpor and pointing out the obvious with all the subtlety of a live-weasel enema. Upon the shiny surfaces of those CD’s, you see, were burned the aural, collective ass-kicking that is Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes, Live at the Greek.
One listen was all it took to take that sour “reunion tour” taste out of my mouth; Live at the Greek is nothing of the sort. For one thing, the Greek holds about 7,000, as far as I know, with not a single over-priced skybox, so the whole “family-fest” element is gone. “The drink will flow and the blood will spill,” so to say, and I don’t think that hazy background I see in video clips came from fog machines or tobacco cigarettes. I had heard about this project, but I just never gave much thought to what an explosive mix Page and the Crowes could be. The Black Crowes have been tearing up their native Atlanta since 1988, not to mention leaving a trail of tinnitis, spilled bongwater, and pissed-off corporate sponsors in their wake when swaggering about on the road. (They earned my undying admiration when, in 1991, mind you, while still up-and-comers, the Crowes got themselves fired as an opening act for ZZ Top. Miller Beer sponsored the tour and lead singer Chris Robinson seized the opportunity to unleash some disparaging remarks about Miller’s particular brand of crass commercialism from the stage.)
Robinson’s propensity to mouth off has earned him some degree of notoriety, but listening to this show leaves me with the sense that he can back up what he says. My eyes bugged out as I read the scrawled liner notes (this CD was released initially over the Web, for download only-no slick packaging required, thank you very much): “Celebration Day?? Custard Pie?? Out on the Tiles??? In My Time of Dying?? TEN-FUCKING-YEARS-GONE?!?!?!??!?!?”
I was beginning to see that this was no ordinary self-indulgent exercise a la the Firm or Coverdale-Page. These are songs that Zeppelin themselves rarely if ever played live.
I was not disappointed. Noticeably absent are any Black Crowes songs; due to a legal dispute with their former record company, Def American, none of the Crowes’ previously recorded songs could be included with this collection, even though they did play some of their standards such as “Hard to Handle” and “Remedy.” But there is no hidden agenda here; crowd and band alike were there for one thing only: to hear Jimmy Page, dammit, and that means Led Zeppelin.
But you can hardly call the Black Crowes a back-up band, they themselves are not gonna take that shit, and they have twelve years worth of work to prove it: they aren’t billed as “the Most Rock & Roll Rock & Roll Band in the World” for nothing. These guys have kept it real and stuck with their brand of raunchy, close-to-the-earth blues-based rock through all of the pop-metal, hair-band, and grunge eras. Listen to their first album, 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, and in many ways you hear a band fully formed, knowing exactly what it is they are doing and where they want to go.
This match-up makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Page’s career was painful to listen to for the most part since Zeppelin broke up in 1980. His various incarnations were forgettable until he and Robert Plant teamed up for 1995’s No Quarter CD and tour; the energy he drew from Plant’s drive and the help of a perfectly assembled road band was astounding to hear as well as see. His on-again-off-again relationship with Plant would appear to be in the off-again stage for the last year or so, but Pagey must have been in need of scratching that itch. He joined up with the Crowes in Fall 1999 for a string of dates at New York’s Roseland theater “and the place was electrified,” said Page. “We decided, we have to record this, because otherwise it would just be lost.”
It really is a perfect fit. Page never strayed far from the blues, even in his most besotted “Hammer of the Gods” fantasies, and the Crowes have stuck closely to their roots as well, never letting the guts and soul of where they came from slip through their fingers. The show opens with “Celebration Day,” and Page sounds perfectly relaxed, happy, and the release of energy is palpable; Chris Robinson just stretches right into his range, flexing perfectly into a heady mix kept tightly wound against all odds by brother Rich on guitar and the rest of the Crowes. Plenty of asshole reviewers have pointed out that Robinson is “no Robert Plant,” but the boy is not filling anybody’s shoes but his own, and that’s enough said about that.
“Custard Pie” is truly one of the great gems on this CD; in fact, there is an impressive collection of songs from Zeppelin’s 1975 album “Physical Graffiti.” But Robinson obviously relishes wrapping his lips around such lyrics as:
Ooh, your custard pie, ain’t seen the like
When you cut it, mama, save me a slice
Your custard pie, I declare, ain’t seen the like
I like your custard pie
When you cut it, mama
Mama, please save me a slice, oh
Chew on a piece of your custard pie
Following this up with “Sick Again” just completely finished me off; again, this is a song that Zeppelin probably never played live, and everybody brings a shitload to the table at the Greek. Page is completely caught up the song and the Crowes push him along, taking a song that could easily plod in the wrong hands and torqueing it to a point of orgasmic release, all of this three songs into the set. “Ten Years Gone” and “In My Time of Dying” round out the “Physical Graffiti” selections and all I can say is, listen for yourself, words will only get you so far.
You have plenty to listen to on “Live at the Greek:” 20 songs culled from a two-night stand, way too many to get into at any length here. “The Lemon Song,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” and incendiary versions of “Heartbreaker” and “Whole Lotta Love” remain true to the studio recordings, and they throw in blues nuggets such as “Sloppy Drunk” and “Mellow Down Easy,” plus a scorching version of Peter Green’ s “Oh Well.” It’s just a workout all around from the sound of it.
Skip ahead and play track 10 if you want to get the idea; “Your Time is Gonna Come” is the one that did it for me, put me right over the top, practically had me weeping for its honesty and loyalty to the original. From the beginning keyboard intro, you know what’s coming, and it just waltzes you right in. What got me was knowing that Page probably hasn’t played that song in nearly thirty years, and he just nails it, no pointless noodling, no unnecessary bowing or double-neck wizardry, just the song as it was meant to be played and experienced. Ordinarily I can’t honestly say I love any musician I have never met but that’s what I feel for Page when I hear him play like this, a man in his fifties who has a talent that is awesome for its potential to amaze as well as embarrass; a man whose talent has not spared him from disparagement and scorn, whose talent was so dependent on three other men who made this music with him that when one was lost they couldn’t consider going on; a man who could very easily have been one of rock’s more pathetic cases of self-destruction, no stranger to the needle or the bottom of a fifth; a man with stories, so many stories, but a voice that is so awful you will never hear him sing a single note he has written. He could very well be one of the world’s sloppiest guitarists, plagued by nerves and self-doubt, but when properly steeled for a performance he has the gift that allows him to reach a level of artistry that even he does not fully understand. I don’t mind telling you I listened to that song four times in a row just to help me get all of this down.
The show at the Greek took place one year ago, October 1999, and obviously the experience was such that the Crowes and Page decided to take it on the road in Summer 2000. Page’s history of bad Karma struck again in August when, after taping an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” they cancelled the remainder of the tour due to a back injury suffered by Page. That meant no show in the Gorge for Oregon/Washington fans; a disappointment to say the least, but who knows what the future holds? A huge outdoor concert just isn’t the same as what you get out of Live at the Greek, and thankfully it wasn’t lost; somebody rolled the tapes and we have something incredible to enjoy as a result.