Most High: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale at 25
The Led Zeppelin duo’s second offering found them opting for more subdued sounds
Not surprisingly, when Robert Plant and Jimmy Page opted to reunite in the early ‘90s, it sparked all sorts of rumors that a full-on Led Zeppelin reunion was in the offing.
After all, the only other member needed to make that a reality was bassist John Paul Jones. For whatever reason, Jones was not asked — and he later claimed he was unaware of the duo’s intentions — but that didn’t stop the two frontmen from pursuing their plans.
The duo’s first album, No Quarter, was largely a reworking of classic Led Zep songs in an acoustic motif. While in many cases the arrangements were dramatically different from the original renditions, it didn’t necessarily indicate there was any plan to make their union an ongoing entity. Consequently, it took Walking into Clarksdale, released on April 21, 1998, to make a definitive statement about the pair’s intents. It was an unqualified success, debuting within the Top Ten on the Billboard charts and reaching number three in the U.K. What’s more, the single culled from the album, “Most High,” garnered a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance and reached Number One on Billboard’ list of Mainstream Rock Tracks.
Clarksdale, of course, referred to Clarksdale, Mississippi, widely considered to be the birthplace of the blues, the sound which inspired both men early on and well into their evolution as Led Zeppelin. Nevertheless, the two opted for a more stripped-down sound, with the majority of the album recorded in a single take, while the band itself — Plant (vocals), Page (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin), Charlie Jones (bass, percussion), and Michael Lee (drums, percussion) — recording simultaneously live in the studio.
The results are manifest in a straight forward effort brimming with a decisive delivery that eschews bombast in favor of more passionate pursuits. “When the World Was Young” is a mellow offering that eventually turns into a robust rocker. “Shining in the Light,” “Burning Up” and the title track come across as decidedly straight-forward, while still primed with passion regardless. “Upon a Golden Horse” adds orchestration and some over-the-top arrangement, while “Most High” takes on an exotic Middle East-type tapestry. If any two songs brings to mind Led Zeppelin it would fall to “House of Love” and “Sons of Freedom,” given their generally tangled tapestry.
Fortunately, the album showed both verve and variety. On songs like “Blue Train,” “Heart in Your Hand,” “When I Was a Child,” and the aforementioned “Please Read the Letter,” Page and Plant opt for a decided subtlety and finesse. Like the album as a whole, those offerings find them tempering their more intensive instincts in favor of a more melodic motif.
That’s not to say that either musician didn’t convey their parts with absolute urgency. Plant’s voice is as expressive as always, while Page tends to underscore each offering rather than attempting to overshadow the proceedings with his pyrotechnics.
Plant was so fond of the material that he later repurposed a pair of songs. “Please Read the Letter” was re-recorded in a decidedly different manner with Alison Krauss for their collaborative effort Raising Sand, winning them a 2009 Grammy for Record of the Year. He also re-wrote the lyrics for “House of Love” and recorded it with his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, for their 2014 album Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar.
Although Plant in particular would continue to pursue varied musical travails, including an ongoing interest in Americana, Walking into Clarksdale represents a significant undertaking on behalf of both musicians. No, the world would not get the Zeppelin reunion we hoped for, but there’s no denying Walking into Clarksdale provided the next best thing.
VIDEO: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “Most High”
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