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Copyright (c) Times Newspapers Ltd. 1985 - 1994 04 Sep 94 Reunion on an epic scale; Led Zeppelin; Music By ROBERT SANDALL They didn't play Stairway To Heaven, but then it wasn't that sort of a reunion. Having sensibly resisted the temptation to call themselves Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were in no mood to treat their first joint venture in 14 years like a fan club outing for the faithful, or some elderly Headbangers' Ball. The long-awaited recoupling of the Plant/Page partnership first announced in these pages back in January and finally accomplished in a London television studio last weekend was a resolutely un-nostalgic affair. MTV originally commissioned this event to wind up its popular Unplugged series of semi acoustic concerts; what it got was something as far removed from the standard mellow strumming of a famous back catalogue as it was from the Sturm und Drang of 1970s Led Zeppelin. If all but one of the songs played were familiar, the manner of their delivery made substantial, almost fulsome apologies for the fact. You could tell something grandiose was afoot from the 40ft web-weave tapestries hanging behind and around the stage. This La Scala-style makeover of Merlin's Cave was clearly built for more than the four-piece rock band Plant and Page plus the rhythm section Plant uses in his solo act that efficiently dispatched the first two numbers, Thank You and What Is And What Should Never Be. While the small invited audience responded with whoops of predictable reverence, Plant, a distinguished opponent of the Past Glories school of career management, did his best to lighten the tone. 'Don't tell me, Dave Gilmour!' he exclaimed, pretending to recognise a fellow middle-aged superstar of conservative outlook and considerable width. 'Oh no, it's a chair, ' he corrected himself, as Page sat down to play The Battle Of Evermore on a triple-necked acoustic guitar with built-in mandolin. From this point, the performance took off on extraordinary tangents. Soon to join the Plant/Page band was a supporting cast of nearly 50 auxiliaries including, stage left, a full chamber orchestra and, stage right, an Egyptian ensemble of about 15 violinists, Ney flautists and hand drummers. Clustered around the centre were a wristy young man with a hurdy-gurdy, a shaven-headed banjo player, another exotic drum beater and the virtuoso Asian female vocalist Najma Akhtar. At times the sheer scale of this operation teetered on the brink of self-parody, putting you in mind of Spinal Tap on a world music jag. Mostly, though, the rococo rearrangements served their dual purpose well, and the myth that Led Zeppelin were, first and foremost, an overloud blues band was firmly put to rest. To this end, the material chosen carefully avoided anything with a big, repetitive riff. There was no Whole Lotta Love, no Black Dog, nothing from the first or last two Zeppelin albums. Aside from one new song, a plangent, almost dirgeful Plant/Page composition called Wonderful One, the focus hovered around the five-year period when the pair went through their folk-rock phase. They played four tracks from their folkiest hour, Led Zeppelin III, the most successful of which was a skirling version of the death row lament Gallows Pole. There was only one clunker: an attempt to rework The Rain Song using a string-heavy orchestra that sounded as though it had got lost on the way to Radio 2. More than making up for that was a magnificently overwrought account of Kashmir, Zeppelin's great, late hippie nod to all things Eastern. From Plant's hoarse muezzin wail at the opening, to the inspired improvisations of the Egyptian contingent that brought it to a thunderous close 10 minutes later, this was thrillingly risky stuff. Perhaps progressive rock, as such epic theatrical meandering used to be called, isn't dead. When Plant and Page take their remarkable show on the road in the new year, we shall find out. Plant And Page Presents will be screened by MTV early next month. A concert album is released by Phonogram at the same time. The Sunday Times, Issue 8872.

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