It is certainly amazing within the current culture of popular music that a "new" release from Led Zeppelin demands so much attention.
This week, the legendary band released "Celebration Day," a double disc/double DVD/Blu-ray/vinyl set documenting the group's Dec. 10, 2007, performance at London's O2 Arena. The reunion show was held in honor of the late founder of Atlantic Records, the equally legendary Ahmet Ertegun and featured original Zeppelin men Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, with John Bonham's son Jason Bonham handling the drum throne for his dearly departed dad. A film of the concert debuted in theaters a few weeks back. And suddenly, Led Zeppelin mania feels as fresh and vibrant is it must have back in 1975 when the group was (more than deservedly) the biggest band in the world.
There's one small difference in 2012, however. Led Zeppelin doesn't actually exist. The band did some high-profile press to go along with "Celebration Day's" release. But despite the ever-lingering rumors of a reunion tour, no such thing seems to be forthcoming.
I, for one, am glad.
Sure, a Led Zeppelin reunion tour would sell out everywhere it went, and would probably yield high artistic standards. Imagine the money that must be dangling in front of the musicians. If the Stones can get away with $800 for the best tickets to its 50th anniversary shows, what would a Led Zeppelin ticket fetch on StubHub? Such a reunion jaunt might singlehandedly save the touring industry. Consider the fact that 20 million people applied for the O2 Arena show alone. All of that for a venue that seated 18,000. Do the math. It's staggering.
Led Zeppelin is as big today as it was when it broke up more than 30 years ago. The band's popularity has jumped several generations. Visit a Guitar Center store on any given day, and it's more than likely that you'll see some 14-year-old hopeful feeling his way through a mighty Zeppelin riff like "Heartbreaker" or "Whole Lotta Love," quite possibly while adorned in a Zeppelin T-shirt.
So why not tour? It all comes down to one man – Robert Plant. The singer – properly perceived as one of the finest in rock history – is the single holdout in the Zeppelin camp, it seems. Plant doesn't want to tour. And I love him for it.
The man's distaste for nostalgia has long been apparent. Throughout his solo career, he's provided an ever-moving target, a shape-shifting persona that has seen him move from hard rock, to a hippie jam-vibe, to a noir-country teaming with the lovely and incredibly talented Alison Krauss. He's avoided living in the past, sometimes to the chagrin of his fans.
Watching the film of "Celebration Day," one is inclined to take Plant's position. He is in incredible form throughout. Though no human could sustain the strength and range the young Plant routinely employed during Zeppelin's heyday, Plant – who was 60 at the time of the O2 concert – accords himself well, saving plenty of gas in the tank for the highest notes, finding new ways to tell the emotional stories of the songs in a manner that is both mature and visceral. Simply put, he kills it.
Which brings us to the point. Today, Plant is 64. If he signed on for a full reunion tour, there's very little chance he would be able to sustain the intensity required by this music night in and night out. Plant knows this. That's what he means when he suggests that singing the way he did in 1975 is essentially a young man's game. Not emotionally, necessarily, but certainly physically.
The touring circuit is stuffed full of aging performers attempting to do justice to work they originally created as young men. Very few of them are up to the task. But the money must make this easier to deal with.
Consider the great Who frontman Roger Daltrey, a powerhouse vocalist from Plant's generation who often sang as hard and as high in range as the Zeppelin singer. God bless him, but Daltrey is struggling to hit the notes these days. It's to Plant's credit that he refuses to go down the same road. Even more to his credit is the fact that his refusal is based on immense respect for the music, love for the friends he made it with, and concern for both the paying fans and the band's legacy.
Of course, Plant's fellow band members are concerned with Zeppelin's legacy as well. By most published accounts, Page, Jones and Jason Bonham would love to tour. Watching and listening to "Celebration Day," it's not hard to understand why. Even without the late John Bonham, and even with most of the band members in their 60s, Led Zeppelin remains the most exciting, creative, vibrant and dynamic band in rock. Page is clearly at (or very near) the top of his game throughout the O2 concert, his marriage of brilliant chord progressions, light-shade dynamic manipulation, and blistering post-blues guitar solos remaining the template every serious electric guitarist of the past (at least) 35 years has had no choice but to deal with. One might quibble over the statistics regarding Page's peer group – for some, Jeff Beck is the greatest, for others, it's Eric Clapton, still more prefer Jimi Hendrix, and so forth – but there can be no doubt that Page is the finest composer and orchestrator of the bunch. The body of work for which Page is guitarist, producer, principal composer, and spirit-guide is peerless, plain and simple.
Sadly, unlike Plant, Page has had a rough go of it as a post-Zeppelin artist. Everything he's done has been worth listening to, and some of it is brilliant. But Page has never had a vehicle as suitable for the display of his genius as Led Zeppelin. Certainly, he knows this to be the truth. Which must make accepting Plant's decision tough going.
Who knows? Maybe Plant will change his mind, and Led Zeppelin will spend the summer of 2013 playing its greatest songs to massive audiences around the world, raking in millions (and millions and millions) of dollars in the process.
But I highly doubt it. And I find this comforting. If "Celebration Day" is the final Led Zeppelin "product" to see release, then the band's tenure will be forever unblemished. A perfect record, to put the bookend on a perfect career.