Let's get something straight right from the start: "Jimmy Page/Robert Plant (Unledded)" is not a Led Zeppelin reunion.
Recorded live on location in London, Wales and Morocco, the 90-minute special (which will air this evening at 10 on MTV) doesn't so much reiterate the Led Zep legacy as reinvent it. True, nine of the 12 tunes performed have titles most Zep fans will easily recognize, but the arrangements are often radically -- and delightfully -- different.
Take "The Battle of Evermore." As presented on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, the song came on as a folk-rock fantasia, full of chirping mandolins and thrumming acoustic guitars as Plant's voice intertwined with that of the late Sandy Denny.
Its "Unledded" incarnation, by contrast, adds a whole new range of colors. It starts off with an intro by Nigel Eaton's hurdy-gurdy (a hand-cranked medieval instrument with a sound somewhere between a fiddle and a pump organ) and Jim Sutherland's bodhran (an Irish frame drum) before Page brings on the familiar mandolin riff, and finishes in a swirl of strings and percussion.
But the most interesting aspect of the new version is the part played by Plant's duet partner, Nadjma, who replaces Denny's Celtic flourishes with ornamentation that owes more to Indian classical music.
It's a stunning touch, and one that not only brings a fresh flavor to the music, but coaxes a stunning performance from Plant.
Then there's "Nobody's Fault but Mine," a Blind Willie Johnson bottleneck blues number, which Zep fans remember as a screaming, Eastern-inflected stomp from the "Presence" album. How do they handle it here? Why, as 16th-century bluegrass, of course, with hurdy-gurdy, banjo and mandolin augmenting the guitar, bass and drums. Amazingly, Page avoids the signature slide riff entirely without sacrificing the song's melodic integrity.
It isn't as if everything on the "Unledded" special is given an exotic new face. "Gallows Pole" is given much the same treatment it got on "Led Zeppelin III," with Page's guitar and Porl Thompson's banjo setting up the basic groove before drummer Michael Lee kicks it into overdrive.
"Thank You" is offered in a bluesy, small-combo setting similar to the one that is found on "Led Zeppelin II" -- though the interplay between Charlie Jones' bass and Ed Shearmur's organ is far livelier than it was when John Paul Jones dubbed both parts on the original recording.
Jones, the other surviving member of Zeppelin (drummer John Bonham died in 1980), does not participate in the "Unledded" sessions, thus keeping the special from turning into a full-fledged Led Zeppelin reunion. That may disappoint fans who had hoped for a more nostalgic gathering, but it certainly doesn't undercut the music.
If anything, Page and Plant's decision to work primarily as a duo (with various backing ensembles) results in some of the most exciting selections on "Unledded." Beginning with the show-opening rendition of "No Quarter" -- recorded in a beautiful, sun-dappled copse forest in Snowdonia, Wales -- there's a special sense of adventure and communication to the music Page and Plant make between themselves.
That comes through with extra clarity on "Wonderful One," the most striking of the special's three new songs.
Built around a pre-recorded loop of Arab drums, it finds Plant wandering from folk-rock reflectiveness to a keening, muezzin wail as Page's droning acoustic guitar churns up countercurrents in the music's polyrhythmic flow. As with the best Led Zeppelin music, it's instantly accessible even though it's unlike anything the average listener has ever heard before.
There's a strong Arabic flavor to much of "Unledded." That hardly seems surprising with "Yalla," a largely improvised number the two performed in a crowded square in Marrakesh, Morocco, and "Wah Wah," a mesmerizing collaboration with a group of Gnawa musicians elsewhere in Marrakesh. (If you think Page is a master at reconfiguring old blues riffs, wait till you hear him trade licks with gunbri player Brahim El Balkani).
The Arabic content in "Friends," by contrast, comes as a complete shock. Opening with an exquisitely mournful nay (an Egyptian bamboo flute) solo by Bashir Abdel Al, it's driven by an understated tabla and doublebass pulse and makes the most of the angular, exotic string arrangement.
But even that pales in comparison with "Kashmir." Augmented by two orchestras -- a European-style string and brass ensemble as well as the Hossam Ramzy Egyptian ensemble -- it takes the tune to new heights, spiking the circular, hypnotic main riff with percolating Arabic percussion and the sort of plangent melodic flourishes usually associated with such singers as Om Kolthum.
At times, it's almost heartbreakingly beautiful (don't be surprised if tears well up during Wael Abu Bakr's violin solo), yet it also rocks like crazy, thanks both to Lee's powerhouse drumming and a finale that slips in allusions to "Achilles Last Stand" and "Black Dog."
Believe me: This is one special MTV couldn't possibly overplay.