Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “No Quarter” (1994) & “Walking Into Clarksdale” (1998)

     Today is a challenging blog for me, as I take on the 1990s era run of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and their Led Zeppelin-esque run of albums and tours.  Following the breakup of Led Zeppelin in 1980, Plant, Page and bass player/keyboardist John Paul Jones all went their separate ways other than the infrequent and usually rough reunion performances.  After watching Page form a duo with Whitesnake singer David Coverdale, Plant essentially claimed that he couldn’t stand to watch Jimmy play with who he considered to be a very poor imitator of himself, so paired up with Page for their first extended work together, beyond limited appearances in concert or in the studio together.  The first outlet for this reunion pairing was “Unplugged” on MTV, aptly renamed “Unledded”, where they combined a live concert with some additional studio tracks in what would eventually be released as the album “No Quarter”.

     The first and most obvious question was where was John Paul Jones, and why wasn’t he involved?  I can understand his reasoning, as I believe this was almost completely Plant’s decision, but the party line was that by just being “Page & Plant”, it wasn’t really a Led Zeppelin reunion so people shouldn’t call it that.  Fair enough, but some unfortunate facts remained.  One, no matter what they called it, the setlist was dominated by Zeppelin tracks.  Two, already missing the greatest drummer in rock history, they didn’t do themselves any favors excluding the remarkably talented John Paul Jones.  They focused on new arrangements and new instruments for this performance, and nobody was better at any of that than Jones.  And third, and perhaps most unfortunately, Page & Plant really handled this entire experience very poorly.  Not only did they fail to take any initiative to least explain to their former bandmate their perspective, their lack of communication was compounded by some really poor attempts at humor.  When asked at an early press conference about Jones’ absence, Plant remarked, “He’s out back parking the car.”  Most rock music fans understand that Page & Plant are the apparent front men and leader of Led Zeppelin, but any real Led Zeppelin fan also understands that John Paul Jones was just as essential to the quality of their music as any of the other three members, and bottom line, he deserved a hell of a lot better treatment than he got here.  As if all of this wasn’t enough, to brashly name the album “No Quarter”, which was his feature song during the days of Led Zeppelin, just came across to me as painfully unaware, insensitive and unnecessary.  If nothing else, he was able to weigh in and at least make his point at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction during the middle of all this, when Jones wryly thanked Robert and Jimmy for “finally remembering his phone number”.  I could go on a lot about this, but it is what it is, so from this point on, I will accept that JPJ was not a part of the experience, and discuss my many pros and cons with their two albums and live experience.

     All of that said, it was still a big milestone for me and a generation of Zeppelin fans who grew up too late and missed the peak of the band.  The “Unplugged” performance and the resulting album had some great moments, and some misses.  First off, not unlike in the late 1970s, Plant’s voice still had its moments of weakness, and the overall vocal performance here is not great.  They recorded five original tracks that were inspired by their many trips to Morocco and elsewhere in the Middle East, and although none of the songs are that great, the incorporation of new musicians from a different culture added a lot to the arrangement.  This is where the real high point comes in, as they rearranged several Led Zeppelin tracks to include an Egyptian orchestra and drum ensemble, as well as the beautiful voice of Najma Ahktar who accompanied them on “The Battle of Evermore”.  This exotic sound added greatly to several tracks, with two of the very best being “Four Sticks” and “The Battle of Evermore”.  The drum ensemble was so intense and influential, it completely reshaped a song that had never been a favorite of mine into an absolute crusher.  As good as those and many other songs were, the expanded arrangement for “Kashmir”, complete with the strings and drums, was even more remarkable and truly the highlight of the entire performance.

     Following the release of “No Quarter”, Page & Plant took that show on tour, and I was able to see it performed live in Orlando at the arena in March of 1995.  I went with my coworker and friend John, and it was every bit as exciting as I hoped it would be.  I was recently pleased to discover the entire show is somehow on YouTube, even as a rudimentary recording.  To hear Jimmy Page & Robert Plant play an entire set of Zeppelin songs, including “The Wanton Song”, “Bring It On Home”, a rare live performance of “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” and of course, the set-closing “Kashmir”… it was a night I will never forget.  I even remember milling around in the parking lot after the show, trying to teach some “young” guys the opening chords to “The Rain Song”.  Once a Zeppelin, always a Zeppelin fan.

     Riding the wave of momentum of this successful venture, and the induction of Led Zeppelin into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Page and Plant decided they wanted to record a full album of original songs.  Recording as a four-piece with Charlie Jones (at least it was someone named Jones) on bass, and Michael Lee on drums, they recorded a somewhat subdued and unusual album.  The title of the album was “Walking Into Clarksdale”, which refers to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the notional home of Delta blues music in America.  I have listened to this album several times over the years, including today, and try as I do, I just don’t care for it very much.  The production is somewhat muffled to me, Plant’s voice still shows sign of strain, there are practically no signature Jimmy Page riffs, and the rhythm section, quite frankly, is not John Paul Jones and John Bonham.  The drums are high energy but somewhat simplistic, with a very boxy sound, and most importantly, most of the songs just aren’t that compelling.

     There are three songs I will highlight for some consideration.  “Most High” is my favorite song on the album, and not surprisingly, it is the closest to a classic Zeppelin tune.  It runs a bit long in the end, but overall it is a pretty strong track.  “Please Read The Letter” is a good song, but you might recognize it better when Plant re-recorded it a decade later with Alison Krauss.  “House of Love” is another track that reappears on a subsequent Plant album, but this version is better, and it is probably my second favorite song on the album.  The rest of the album are songs that have moments of interest, but mostly grind and plod along without much appeal.  The album did not really take off, and after one more tour to support this record, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page went their separate ways, with minimal professional interaction since other than one amazing night in 2007.

     As you can see, I have a lot of feelings and thoughts on this overall project, and thus why I combined the two albums into one blog after originally planning to listen only to “Walking Into Clarksdale”.  For whatever reason, neither album is available on most streaming services, but as always, that can be overcome, and I have both CDs anyway.   As a starved Led Zeppelin fan, it satiated a big need for their music and presence in my early adult life, but I was also quick to recognize the limitations of them performing without their two bandmates; one by choice, and one by tragedy.  I’m ultimately glad they separated paths as a duo, and although I would have preferred a full-fledged Led Zeppelin reunion, that just wasn’t in the cards… at least not in 1998.

Published by tacopepper

A music fan...

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