Led Zeppelin. The only influential heavy metal/hard rock band beyond reproach. Would it matter to the reader if I confessed that I have never been a big fan of the almighty Zep? I've always found their recorded output to be somewhat inconsistent and far too bluesy (as opposed to bloozy) for my taste. The album and film The Song Remains the Same did little to change my mind except to confirm to me that they were terribly boring and long winded as a live band. What can I say now save for the fact that How the West Was Won has forced me to completely re-examine Zeppelin's material and converted me into a fan for life?
Without mincing words, this is quite possibly the best live album I've ever heard. It also happens to be the most representative statement in all of Led Zeppelin's legendary back catalog. The fact that the band has been defunct for twenty three years, forever stamped into pop culture iconography, makes this wonderful live album all the more poignant.
It must be said that the music contained is wrapped in one of the most unattractive packaging designs in recent memory. It simply doesn't hold up when compared to some of Zeppelin's classic album covers. However, as soon as one hits the play button, one isn't even concerned with album artwork.
Spread over three CDs and clocking in at over two and a half hours, this is among the most blissful listening I've had the pleasure of indulging in for a very long time. Seconds into "Immigrant Song", it becomes blatantly obvious why Jimmy Page chose to finally release this live album. Taken from two concerts in California from the LA Forum and Long Beach Arena in 1972, Led Zeppelin were still young, hungry and absolutely on fire. On Disc One, the band plays most of the songs straight up, very similar to the studio counterparts. Without exception, each version of every song works better on How the West Was Won. To hear "Since I've Been Loving You" on HTWWW is to hear it for the first time. No matter how tired some of us may be of "Stairway to Heaven", the version performed here will give you an all new appreciation.
As Disc One concludes, Zeppelin sit down for a brief acoustic set, consisting of "Going to California", "That's the Way" and "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp". However, the meat and potatoes of the set, if you will, is on discs two and three. This is where the description "well-oiled machine" truly applies. "Dazed and Confused" has a running time of 25:25. Yes, it is similar to the version heard on The Song Remains the Same. But the sound quality is much better, the mix biased towards the bass and drums and everyone in the band sounds alive. "Moby Dick" is nearly twenty minutes long and Bonham's solo is so frighteningly involving that I can't imagine anyone wanting to take advantage of his spot for a piss break.
Disc Three contains 23:08 of "Whole Lotta Love" and with it, a blues and rock and roll medley interpolating "Hello Mary Lou" and "Going Down Slow" among others. The CD climaxes with "Rock and Roll", "The Ocean" and "Bring it On Home". Then it's over and I'm left emotionally drained. My God, what an experience this is.
How the West Was Won is the very best of Zeppelin's output precisely because it shows that they were a band that knew no bounds. They were a hard rock band, a folk combo and progressive music virtuosos who incorporated their love for American rock and blues into their art. Everyone knew this long before I did. I never appreciated it until now. Thankfully, we have these superlative live recordings to forever remind us how devastating their concerts must have been. A colossal piece of hard rock history. Indispensable.