By Anthony DeCurtis
Updated June 20, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

How the West Was Won

  • Movie

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.

”West” draws on two concerts Zeppelin played in California during the summer of 1972 — after the release of the group’s legendary fourth album and before ”Houses of the Holy” — combining performances to simulate a single two-and-a-half-hour show. It’s the rare song on these discs that doesn’t run over five minutes, and epic treatments of ”Dazed and Confused” (25:25), drummer John Bonham’s signature solo on ”Moby Dick” (19:20), and a blistering medley (including ”Hello Mary Lou,” ”Let’s Have a Party,” and John Lee Hooker’s ”Boogie Chillun”), bracketed by ”Whole Lotta Love” (23:08), extend much longer than that.

While you occasionally yearn for — and get — concise and focused tears through the likes of ”Immigrant Song” and ”Rock and Roll,” the expanded versions leave you marveling at the band’s improvisatory zeal. In the studio, Jimmy Page, Zep’s guitarist and producer, was a daunting sonic architect who constructed monumental, elaborately textured walls of sound. On stage, though, he is far rawer, less coolly intellectual, more feral — qualities thrillingly in evidence here. His endless inventiveness rescues even ”Stairway to Heaven” from decades of classic-rock-radio overplay, restoring all the force and freshness it held at its conception.

But Page is simply the first among equals. Singer Robert Plant delivers every whisper, every scream, and every vocal articulation in between with palpable joy at the superhuman elasticity of his voice. On bass and keyboards, John Paul Jones blends rhythm and melody with consummate sensitivity; he never plays an inessential note. And Bonham is a wonder. No one ever questioned his brute power, but what comes through here is his dexterity as a kind of bandleader, simultaneously the group’s anchor and its relentless whip.

Mysterious, regally indifferent to the media, aesthetically ambitious, Led Zeppelin in their heyday often seemed to exist entirely in their own enclosed world. ”How the West Was Won,” along with ”Led Zeppelin DVD,” 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.

How the West Was Won

  • Movie
  • G
  • 164 minutes
  • John Ford
  • Henry Hathaway