Music News & Reviews

‘Complete BBC Sessions’ affirms Led Zeppelin’s live intensity

Upon its release as a double-disc set in late 1997, “BBC Sessions” satisfied what almost every Led Zeppelin fan had been craving: documented proof of the band’s volcanic intensity and intuition as a concert act. The 1977 live set “The Song Remains the Same” had its moments. But it represented the band in its later years — still a potent and commanding act, but one whose celebrity status and a modest level of complacency had set it. “The BBC Sessions,” pulled from six radio programs cut between 1969 and 1971, gave us a far hungrier band that mushroomed into a titanic rock ’n’ roll force before our ears. The performances were lean, devastatingly intense and, best of all, pristine in audio quality. As an archival find, “The BBC Sessions” was unearthed treasure.

Now with the remastering of its full studio album catalog complete, under the production auspices of Zep guitar guru Jimmy Page, “BBC Sessions” has been overhauled to become a three-disc manifesto that is now titled “The Complete BBC Sessions.” It is, simply put, more of a great thing.

The first two discs replicate the original 1997 release. Its marvelous sound is no less astounding, nearly two decades on. We hear the quartet’s combustible fury in a pair of rapid-fire takes of “Communication Breakdown,” the quick-witted shift from psychedelic cool to pockets of rockish frenzy during “What Is and What Never Should Be,” and the curious quiet that greeted “Stairway to Heaven” when the piece was a new and essentially unheard work roughly six months before its studio version was first released.

There are individual triumphs here as well, including the youthful rage and bravado in Robert Plant’s vocals throughout “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” Page’s slide-savvy blues embrace in “Travelling Riverside Blues,” the pure solemnity of the beat John Bonham grinds out during “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” and the relentless bass groove that John Paul Jones employs to drive “Immigrant Song.”

The surprises come on the third disc, with a collection of previously unreleased performances that include a trio of tunes from an April 1969 session. The selection lacks the audio clarity that distinguishes the rest of the album, but Page is simply explosive on an additional take of “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and the full band adopts an infectiously loose and coarse blues groove during its only known recording of “Sunshine Woman.” Two additional takes of “What is and What Never Should Be,” and their brilliant exhibition of psychedelic dynamics round out what was already the mighty Zep’s greatest concert portrait. On “The Complete BBC Sessions,” everything and everyone sounds even mightier.