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William Blake wrote, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" in the late 18th century, but he might have been describing the thunderous sound created by Led Zeppelin, the band that took the blues obessesion of English garage bands from the '60s and fused it to a hyperbolic, grandiose rock, in the process, paving the way for both the pomposity of progressive rock and the annoying histrionics of heavy metal.

There is a fine line between musicality and self-indulgence, of course, and many feel that Led Zeppelin fell on the wrong side of it.

This week, more than five hours of previously unreleased live Zeppelin material saw daylight on DVD, and taken in totality, it proves these naysayers wrong.

For Zep fanatics, this is the mother lode. Five hours of mostly never-before-seen footage, in stunning 5.1 Surround Sound, with bonus materials, great liner notes and even a few gorgeous stills thrown into the bargain.

Yes, we've all seen "The Song Remains the Same" hundreds of times; many of us even began accepting the fact that the documentary of this 1973 Madison Square Garden show, far from the band's best, was all that actually existed.

We weren't far from the truth, for according to Jimmy Page, the band "actually shunned commercialism, which is why so little footage of the band has ever been seen before."

What there is, we now have, and it is truly a godsend. The DVD begins with the entirety of the band's 1970 performance in the Royal Albert Hall, a mere 12 months following the release of its startling debut album. This is Zep at its rawest, most visceral, most clearly allied with the blues the band members so revered. It's also Zeppelin at its most self-indulgent and solo-heavy, as evidenced by Page's excessive but beautifully played take on "White Summer" and drummer John Bonham's over-the-top but still unmatched soloing on "Moby Dick."

The highlight of this early show is Robert Plant, at this young age, still the most exhilarating vocalist rock had yet produced. Equal parts Janis Joplin and Howlin' Wolf, Plant's voice is an absolute miracle to behold, particularly on the epic "Dazed and Confused." The interplay between bassist extraordinaire John Paul Jones and Bonham is also quite a treat. Jones deserves more credit for the Zeppelin sound than he has ever been granted.

As magnificent as Disc 1 is, the second half of this package is the one that backs up the declaration that Zeppelin belongs in the same category as the Beatles and the Who.

Part of the reason for this -- a healthy part of it -- is Page, an idiosyncratic, brilliant guitarist who, with Jimi Hendrix, is the most influential player and composer to emerge from the rock era.

Witness the stunning acoustic set, part of the Earls Court segment from 1975. Here, Page proves he is no mere miner of the history of the blues, but rather a man bursting with complex musical ideas that defy easy categorization.

"Going to California" is Bert Jansch-inspired country-folk; "That's the Way" is as chordally dense as Joni Mitchell's best work; "In My Time of Dying" proves that Page, offering blistering and idiomatically dead-on slide guitar playing, had made the blues his own a mere six years after forming Zeppelin from the ashes of the Yardbirds.

It gets better -- Knebworth, in 1979, is the last known recording of Bonham, who died a matter of months following this homecoming before 400,000 Britons. Page looks a bit frail, and his playing is a tad sloppier than the Earls Court segment, but the band is absolutely on fire on the transcendent "Nobody's Fault but Mine" and the career-defining "Achilles' Last Stand."

If all of this isn't enough, check out "How the West Was Won," the three-CD set documenting two legendary 1972 shows in California. This is the only true Zeppelin live album, it must be said; "The Song Remains the Same" absolutely pales by comparison.

It's about time Zeppelin got its due as a live band.

To joy
Maybe it was only a dream. It bore every nuance of such: the sense of surreal exhilaration, the overwhelming investment of meaning in what one might otherwise hardly notice, the lack of logic or, perhaps, the ability to tune in to a greater logic.

Performing in Nietzsche's last week, Chris Whitley and his band -- himself on dobro, guitar and vocals, drummer Matthias Macht, bassist Heiko Schramm -- summoned an ambience that suggested the first modern blues and folk music we've heard since the heyday of Hendrix, Dylan and their ilk.

I looked around the crowd assembled near the front of the stage, real and naked exhilaration plastered on my face; some looked back at me and smiled, but most never took their eyes off Whitley, their jaws hanging open signifying a confusion that would, by show's end, repose into something resembling joy.

Whitley's voice is unusual; he bends it from the airiness of a most otherworldly falsetto into the grittiest of growls, often within the same phrase. The metal picks used to play the National steel guitar, equipped with a resonator that gives it its snarling tone, subtly coax torment and beauty from the instrument.

It was during "To Joy (Revolution of the Innocents)" that my epiphany arrived: This is music about shared exploration -- between the musicians on the stage, so in tune with each other, so willing to go where brief suggestion leads, but also between the musicians and the audience, challenged to follow into a dangerous, rich psychic space.

For those who took the bait, a beautiful vista awaited.


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