Rock column, The Mail on Sunday, December 16 2007

Led Zeppelin
O2 Arena, London
FOUR STARS


Roll over, Van Halen, and tell the Pistols the news: this is the mother of all rock reunions. Led Zeppelin’s first full show in 28 years, at a charity tribute to their label boss Ahmet Ertegun, is the hottest ticket since Live 8, and it may be the hottest ever for a concert that doesn’t last all day.

A tremendous buzz fills the great icy space of the O2. The crowd is dotted with legends, from Mick Jagger to Paul McCartney. At least half the punters are over 50 and many have flown in from America, with nothing to declare but their ardour. Not even an appearance from Bill Wyman can dampen their enthusiasm.

Led Zeppelin start by putting an old television set on the big screen to show a news clip from Florida in 1973. It’s a polite reminder of how big they once were: they made news just by touching down in their private jet.

While the crowd are gazing at the screen, the band sneak into place at the foot of it to open, thunderously, with Good Times, Bad Times. ‘In the days of my youth,’ Robert Plant begins. The fans reply with a roar of middle-aged delight. Two previous reunions – at Live Aid in 1985 and a record-label party in 1988 – were bad times, but this is already different.

The sound is crisp, the rhythm section immense, Plant is magnetic and Jimmy Page is smiling, even if he does resemble Jimmy Tarbuck these days. The band members don’t move much, leaving it to the video relay to convey dynamism with rapid cutting. Widescreen and monochrome, it makes them look like the icons they are.

Plant, now 59, has swapped the denim loons of old for a pair of straight fitted trousers in inky-blue silk. They are what the well-dressed rock god should be wearing in 2007 (Sir Mick, please note). Remarkably for someone with a bubble perm, Plant exudes dignity.

After five minutes, all the talk of whether Led Zeppelin are too old for this looks a bit silly. Ahmet Ertegun himself was 45 when he signed them and still working at 83 when he died. In the blues, seniority has never been a drawback: you just sing ‘woke up this morning’ with an air of increasing surprise.

Led Zeppelin didn’t write many great songs, but nearly all the 16 tracks they play tonight have a great element – a riff, a chorus, a drum part, or simply a well-judged pause. Page’s solos are too sprawling to appeal to a music lover who grew up listening to the new-wavers – themselves a reaction against dinosaurs like Page. But his riffs are a treat, both massive and adroit.

John Paul Jones has some funky basslines for a heavy rock star, and Jason Bonham, deputising for his late father on drums, is a revelation – muscular, dextrous and revelling in the occasion. In the programme (a hardback!), a recent photo of the four of them is captioned simply Led Zeppelin, so he’s in the band now.

While Plant’s voice has lost a layer of airy ease, it has gained something too: grains of wisdom and subtlety. Ambivalence can be fatal in rock, but on Stairway To Heaven, Plant’s well-known misgivings add self-awareness to something that could have been awfully bombastic.

There are dull moments. No Quarter is stodgy, and Page’s famous violin-bow solo on Dazed And Confused is more gimmick than pleasure. But Stairway, the biggest number one that never was, rescues matters with its sweet folk melody, and the main set ends forcefully with a roof-raising version of the riveting, dramatic, untypical Kashmir.

Whole Lotta Love makes the perfect encore with its classic riff conjuring up the world this band didn’t bestride – that of Top Of The Pops – as well as the one they did. And Rock And Roll rounds things off with storming aplomb.

When it all comes together, this is music that makes you feel more alive. As Led Zeppelin link arms, the look on Jason Bonham’s face declares that he has had the night of his life. So have thousands of other people.