Led Zeppelin has taken its share of shit from the rock press. It was putdown in 1969 for being yet another British group blasting out blues past the threshold ofpain; and just lately, in an album review that found it too quietly ethereal, Rolling Stone renamed it the Limp Blimp.
But on this Friday night, the Garden's packed and the energy is climbing visibly, in the shape of a sweet-pot cloud swelling like a summer nimbus above the crowd: long-hairs in Levis and loose-haltered ladies out front, painted and sculptured groupies of various genders backstage, everybody peaking toward the event: Led Zeppelin's final stop on a three-month tour that had been building all along toward this last set of gigs in New York--which is, after all, Judgment Central. The Zep had been flashing around the country in a Big Bunny-style jet with fur bedrooms and a brass-railed bar, and the press was eating that up, and so far they'd played to more than half a million people--including a gig in Tampa that broke a hallowed old Beatles record for Most Bodies Gathered and Bucks Made at a Single Rock Performance--so this is the end of the hottest tour yet.
And they come out blazing: kick right into Rock and Roll, Robert Plant, shakinghis tight-denimed ass and marcelled-wheat mane all over the stage, attacking the vocals ... "It's been a long time since I've rock 'n' rolled!" ... while Jimmy Page, looking like an angel with bad things on his mind, bends toward the red guitar slung gun-fighter-low over his black-velvet space-cowboy suit--which shines with deco stars and moon slivers--tearing off licks and chops like bouquets of white sparks. At the last note of Rock and Roll they shift too fast for applause into Celebration Day and then tie that tight to Black Dog, Plant wailing high over one of Page's low-down riffs, while shifting spotlights in smooth choreography color every moan and grind, "Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove"--and you know that these boys are not fucking around.
They put out for nearly three hours without a break. And they have technology and staging down. On No Quarter, from the new album, John Paul Jones moves from bass to synthesized piano (one of three keyboards he uses, including a mellotron, which simulates an orchestra the size of Detroit) and, as a saffron spot picks him out of the blackness, Plant's voice, squeezed through some sort of sound compressor, gets the same weird underwater effect that's on the album, while dry-ice smoke rolls eerily across the stage like thick ground fog. Then, after The Song Remains the Same and The Rain Song comes Page's tour de force--Dazed and Confused. The smoke billows up again, with patterned slides projected through it, leaving disembodied shapes to hover in the haze, and Page takes on his guitar with a violin bow, soon shredded as he teases and slams it against the metal strings, virtuoso cosmic electronic riffs, with Plant scat-singing along in lingering echo--amazing sound but not precisely music--until Page gets back to his incredible fingers toward the end. It's Plant's turn next, the first soft notes of Stairway to Heaven sending a tangible rush through the crowd, they're that tuned in, and then drummer John Bonham comes up to bat with a 20-minute solo called Moby Dick. It's an excursion we don't usually get off on, but Bonham (who wears sneakers for traction) works so hard and well that he gets you into it: The crowd whistled and yelped him the whole way.
And out, naturally, with that old monster, Whole Lotta Love. Even though Page space-warps the middle on a sonic-feedback gadget called a there-min--more of that love for sound qua sound that musicians develop and the rest of us have to put up with--it's the sort of fine mean rock that tells you what the real stuff is. The four Zeps may be experimenting in directions some of us could live without, but they're serious about what they're up to, and when they decide to play rock 'n' roll, it doesn't get any better. The blimp's a long way from limp.