“What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin album?”
I’ve always struggled with this question. It’s not because I don’t like Led Zeppelin; they’re one of my favorite bands of all time.
It’s because my favorite records from Messrs. Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham are ones that hardly anyone has heard of.
I’m talking about bootlegs, and live bootlegs specifically.
As far as I’m concerned, Led Zeppelin was a live band. I’m not saying that to downplay their immense achievements in the studio, but it was on stage that their music reached transcendence.
And for someone like me, who wasn’t alive when the Hammer of the Gods thundered through the world’s concert venues, those illicit audience recordings and soundboard tapes are a window into the unparalleled “electric magic” of live Zeppelin.
Over the next couple of blog posts, I’m going to run through some of my favorite Led Zeppelin bootleg recordings and why I love them so much. This is by no means a definitive list, and, if you’re a Zep head, I’d encourage you to share your personal bootleg recommendations in the comments.
The Dancing Avocado (Fillmore West, San Francisco, 24th April 1969)
Led Zeppelin’s early appearances at Fillmore West were the stuff of legend, and listening to “The Dancing Avocado” (so named after the bonkers poster that accompanied the original concert) you understand why. Captured in stereo by a pair of Neumann mics set up on stage, this superbly recorded show features a young-and-hungry Zep on fierce form.
For an idea of what I’m talking about, just listen to Page’s searing lead lines and the interplay between Bonzo and Jonsey during opener “As Long As I Have You.” There’s also the intense call and response jam that Plant, Page and Bonham break into when Jones suffers some technical issues at the 11 minute mark, evidence of a band firing on all cylinders and not missing a beat if I’ve ever heard one.
Blueberry Hill (L.A. Forum, September 4th 1970)
I could wax lyrical for days about the sheer brilliance of Led Zeppelin’s performance at the L.A. Forum on September 4th. Instead, I’ll defer to the words of leading Zep expert Dave Lewis, who sums up “Blueberry Hill” thusly:
“…The sheer authenticity of the performance shines through. The dynamic thrust of Bonham’s drums, the sinewy grind of Page’s guitar, Jonesy’s resonant bass lines and melodic keyboards, plus the outstanding clarity of Plant’s vocal shrieks (enhanced by the echo unit used at the time), all merge into a ferocious mix that magically recreates the electricity of the occasion.”
As many a Zep fan will tell you, the band’s performances at the L.A. Forum were consistently amongst their best. In fact, there’s another show taken from this illustrious venue in part two of this feature…
How the East Was Won (Osaka Festival Hall, Japan, 29th September 1971)
Many regard the Japanese tour of 1971 a high point in Led Zeppelin’s career. Zep clearly responded well to the Japanese audiences, and some incredibly inventive playing came about as a result. For a prime example of just how on fire they were, check out “How the East Was Won.” Released last year, this excellent mono soundboard documents Zep’s 29th September performance at Osaka Festival Hall. As 100 Greatest Bootlegs notes:
“This was Zeppelin's fifth and final performance on their debut Japanese tour of 1971. It is regarded as one of their greatest ever shows and significant for one offs and surprises, such as the only known performance of Friends during the acoustic set. A brief extract of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes follows and Pennies From Heaven is included within Dazed And Confused, these one and only performances add to the importance of the show.”
Frustratingly, this one is incomplete. But if you want to check out the full show, there is this version sourced from an inferior sounding (but still very listenable) multi-track stage recording. This multi-track sourced version includes a phenomenal 34-minute “Whole Lotta Love” medley towards the end of the show that is Zeppelin at their best.
So that’s my first batch of Zeppelin bootleg picks, but what are yours? And, did you ever see the legendary group live in concert? As always, share your stories in the comments!