Rock music: Still sexy after all these years

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Shepherds Bush Empire
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

Shepherds Bush Empire

Rock music needs its occasions, and 30 years after the birth of Led Zeppelin, a surprise gig by the band's pivotal members still registered heavily on the music hack

Richter scale. Tonight's guest list was literally 800 names long, and there were enough pop stars in the audience for a Tussaud's Rock Circus. With the pomp, bombast and frivolous excess of 1970s rock hanging in the air like patchouli, the faithful prepared to pay homage.

The roar that greeted them as they came on-stage was immense, and there was also that pleasing sense of the surreal which occurs when one encounters icons of popular culture in the flesh. Plant looked the better preserved of the two, but then he has several years on Page, who's now pushing 55. They were joined by Michael Lee on drums, Plant's son-in-law, Charlie Jones, on bass, and Phil Andrews on keyboards, squeeze-box, and mandolin. Unfortunately Andrews was so quiet in the mix that he often appeared to be miming.

Wisely, they began with a medley of oldies, rather than slavishly promoting their forthcoming album, Walking Into Clarksdale. We got "Nightflight" from Physical Graffiti, then "Bring It On Home" and "Heartbreaker" from Led Zeppelin II. The latter served as an only reminder of why Jimmy Page is still revered in rock guitar circles. His riffs are mammoth hooks; sexy, melodic phrases that lodge in both the crotch and the cranium. And even although he's no longer the lithe, twenty-something who (together with Hendrix) pioneered the phallocentric repertoire of rock guitar posturing, he still has a certain elegant swagger when he gets going.

The acoustic interlude which featured "Going To California", "Tangerine" and the hugely infectious stomp of "Gallows Pole" seemed to induce a mass reverie of nostalgia. When Page teased his Les Paul with a violin bow, and when a roadie ran on with a fresh incense stick for Plant's monitor, it was a reminder of those heady days before This is Spinal Tap brilliantly deconstructed the whole heavy rock genre.

Of the new material, only "Walking into Clarksdale" and the single "Most High" came close to Zeppelin of old, but then to be fair the agenda has changed, with Steve Albini's production on the new album attempting (and often succeeding) to contemporise the pair's sound. The audience cared not a jot about this, of course - they simply wanted "Stairway To Heaven". Despite Page teasingly closing "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" with "Stairway's" opening however, they knew in their heart of hearts that it wasn't going to happen.

Instead, we got a truly incendiary "Whole Lotta Love" in which Page coaxed other-worldly squeals from an archaic theremin, and a strangely poignant "Thank You", the song which Plant wrote for his wife back in 1969. "Just silly old buggers singing songs about love," he grinned at the end. How could he have confused himself with Des O'Connor and Sacha Distel?