A group celebrated for Wagnerian excess, Led Zeppelin live up to their reputation once again with the simultaneous release of ”How the West Was Won,” a three-CD live set, and Led Zeppelin DVD, a two-disc overview that essentially spans the band’s history on stage, from 1969 to 1979. Taken together, the collections run close to eight hours, raising the inevitable question: Is all this too much of a good thing?
It’s a tribute to the quality and tastefulness of these projects, however, that once you start listening and watching, the question becomes irrelevant. They both capture a mighty band at the height of its gargantuan power, and while they don’t exactly leave you wanting more, they are immensely satisfying.
Distinctive as each musician is, Zep’s four men cohere as a band, as the DVD makes dramatically clear. Zeppelin rarely permitted themselves to be filmed, so these discs contain much of the rare footage that is available — and even make smart use of bootlegs shot from the audience by fans. What might initially seem like a technological disadvantage, however, turns out to be a boon. For the most part, these performances are devoid of corny, MTV-style quick cuts, fetishistic close-ups, or indulgent visual effects and distractions. The members of the band are playing exclusively for each other — the interaction between them is a pleasure to behold — and for the audience, not for intrusive cameras.
The result is a coruscating immediacy — whether during an intimate acoustic performance of ”Going to California” in a packed arena or a ferocious four-song set taped in a tiny studio for Danish television. Entertaining extras include a scene of Robert Plant chatting up a flirty Germaine Greer at a party in 1972 and a visceral 1969 performance in front of the thoroughly puzzled studio audience of a French variety show.
Mysterious, regally indifferent to the media, aesthetically ambitious, Led Zeppelin in their heyday often seemed to exist entirely in their own enclosed world. ”Led Zeppelin DVD,” along with ”How the West Was Won,” shatters the walls of that enclosure, and the band storms out, playing music that is both of its time and timeless, as accessible and unapproachable now as when it was made.