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Whole Lotta Led The music of '70s rock gods Led Zeppelin remains fresh and vital for a whole new generation of listeners

On Sept. 25, 1980, one day into rehearsals for an impending U.S. tour, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was discovered dead in a guest bedroom of Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page's house, following an evening of heavy drinking.

The biggest and best rock band in the world was no more.

And yet, 27 years later, Led Zeppelin remains immensely popular, even more influential. Rock bands come and go. Zeppelin, however, was built to last.

This week was an incredibly busy one in the Zeppelin world. On Tuesday, the band's catalog became available for digital download for the first time. That same day, a twin-disc primer of remastered gems, "Mothership," hit shelves, as did a lovingly remastered, repackaged and expanded edition of the concert album "The Song Remains the Same." Simultaneously, satellite radio station XM has launched "XM Led: The Led Zeppelin Channel," which will program a continuous stream of the band's music.

The film version of "The Song Remains the Same" will get the grand treatment this Tuesday, when a deluxe package featuring 5.1 surround-sound mixing and three-quarters of an hour's worth of bonus footage is released.

Finally, the surviving members of the band -- Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones -- will convene, with Bonham's son Jason in the engine room, for a one-off concert in tribute to Atlantic Records founder and longtime band friend Ahmet Ertegun, to be held Dec. 10 at London's O2 Arena. (More than a million fans eager to buy tickets for this show applied unsuccessfully.)

That's an awful lot of activity from a band that has been splintered for nearly three times the length of time it was together. In this age of instant gratification and the constant streaming of largely disposable entertainment artifacts, both tangible and of the digital-information variety, it is quite tough to believe the work of a rock band from the '70s could be deemed worthy of further examination.

That's indeed the case, though.

Ideally, this onslaught of activity will familiarize a generation of younger listeners with the enduring majesty of this foursome -- a group of potential listeners who might not have noticed the alarming frequency with which hip-hop craftsmen have "borrowed" beats from the Zeppelin catalog, or just how often a young rock outfit is oh-so-slightly reheating Zeppelin-esque leftovers and christening them "new songs." There's a world of wonder out there for the open mind to discover.

Disparaged as everything from "dinosaur act" to tame "classic rock" band, Zeppelin's music continues to burn bright, its collected works towering above the popular music landscape as a constant reminder of what was and what should forever be.

Why care about a band that no longer exists? Because the music is still so fresh, so vital, so ancient, so modern, so redolent of the past, so suggestive of the future.

It's fitting that Zeppelin -- occasional reunions notwithstanding -- ceased to exist when Bonham died. Like the Beatles, Zeppelin was a band depending on all four members for its survival. Bonham, clearly one of the finest and most powerful drummers in the history of recorded sound, is irreplaceable, so integral was his playing to the band dynamic.

Guitarist and founder Page is peerless as rock composer and producer, his playing a startling blend of blues fury, cross-cultural hybridization, sophisticated chord voicings and open-tuned folk exploration. Jones, in addition to his stellar blend of Paul McCartney-esque melodic bass lines and the funk/R&B grace of James Jamerson, also wrote, arranged and added an additional layer of musicality to much of the band's best work. Singer Plant brought the influence of primal acoustic and electric blues, a deep understanding of late '60s psychedelia, and an ability to fuse deeply rooted American folk forms to Middle Eastern modalities. (He also wrote the lyrics for "Stairway to Heaven." 'Nuff said.)

Together, these four made music that, to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Plant, was "a little bit to the left of heaven." It has endured simply because it had to.

Ultimately, Zeppelin's music has rather handily transcended the era which produced it.

-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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