From Ragas to Riches: Finding A Way Through the “Black Mountain Side” During “White Summer”
The first time I actually got to watch Jimmy’s magnificent performance of White Summer was in 2003, when it appeared as part of a collection of previously unreleased live concert footage packaged in a double-disc set entitled simply, Led Zeppelin DVD
Understand this. Up until this point, the only extensive live concert document of Led Zeppelin that we had — aside from some grainy bootlegs — was the 1976 concert film, The Song Remains the Same. This one film was it, the whole kit and caboodle, the only properly produced evidence of one of the most glorified live acts in the history of rock. In this draught of sacred texts, TSRS served as a kind of Old Testament for rabid Led Zeppers studying the teachings of the Gods. Consider the tribute bands roaming the earth with all of their “Jimmys” decked in the same chest-baring black dragon suit Page wore at those 1973 Madison Square Garden shows? Yes, the Suit Remains the Same. So, imagine the shock and joy upon receipt of this new collection of epic performances spanning ten years, from 1969 to 1979? Good God, they had other outfits!
But, as revelatory as this was for fans, imagine the dumbstruck ecstasy it brought to a bunch of wide-eyed girls who had just begun rehearsals for a crazy enterprise called Lez Zeppelin?
We were just out of the gate and hungrily seeking the path to the power, excitement and sensuality of this behemoth of a group when suddenly, the Led Zeppelin DVD flew overhead and dropped the map to the greatest of all buried treasures onto the deck of our pirate ship. A miracle! And, maybe a little magic…
The concerts on the DVD were all magnificent. In fact, we, Lez Zeppelin, played three of them in their entirety in December of 2014 during a three-night series at the Fairfield Theatre Company Not a small feat. (Understatement.) The featured performances in the collection included: Madison Square Garden in 1973, Earl’s Court in 1975, Knebworth in 1979 and the gem that blew my mind the most — The Royal Albert Hall in 1970. Aside from a several in-studio segments and one from a Danish television appearance in 1969, The Royal Albert Hall show gives us the earliest glimpse of the band in all of its exuberance and youth. They are slightly awkward, yet insanely sexy. They are four distinct musical personalities, pre-bravado, pre-peacock swagger. Together they huddle around the drum kit playing their hearts out with intent to kill (that is, all of the other bands) as they trade glances and riffs in pure musical ferocity, sounding like nobody before – or since, for that matter. Watching this for the first time, I could not believe how good they were — already.
But then, four songs in, young Jimmy in his long black locks and unforgettably nerdy argyle sweater vest that looked like something a pensioner would wear while sitting in front of an electric heater eating a pork pie, took a seat alone on the stage with his two-toned DanElectro to play a solo piece called, White Summer.
Beginning with a series of angelically light harmonics and sitar-like string bends that sound exotic because of the D-A-D-G-A-D (also known as the Celtic-Arabic-Indian or C.I.A.) tuning, Jimmy evokes a Middle-Eastern mysticism as he crafts an improvisation lasting 12:23 mesmerizing minutes.
Having already been a student of Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin’s debut album I was well aware that the piece had emerged from Celtic folk roots, in particular, a composition by the legendary Scottish guitarist, Bert Jansch, called “Black Water Side.”
I was less familiar with its sister creation. As it turns out, this composition, as well, finds its roots in an Irish folk song adapted by another British folk guitarist, Davy Graham, called She Moved Through the Fair.
Graham, in turn, credits the song – or the lyrics, anyway — to Irish poet, Padraic Colum, who apparently added several verses to the traditional Mixolydian melody in order to put the thing together. Graham, later, took the piece a step further, developing it along the lines of Indian Classical Music and renamed it, She Moved Thru the Bizarre/Blue Raga.
Jimmy first recorded his version of White Summer with the Yardbirds in 1967 for the album Little Games.
On that recording he employs a tabla player, further embracing the concept of the piece as a “raga.” The Yardbirds version is not nearly as drawn out and developed as the one Jimmy performs at The Royal Albert Hall. However, the addition of the tabla player brings it solidly into the realm of raga – or at least the spirit of one. In my mind, this tells us a lot about how the piece should be approached, studied and ultimately performed.
A “raga,” according to Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi and a magnificent sitar player in her own right, is “basically a melody form that is based on a scale that has anywhere from five to seven notes. There can be recognizable melodies or melody forms that reappear through the raga, but they live and breathe and have characters and moods that are meant to be evoked by playing them.” A raga is difficult to explain in words, she says, “because it is really understood through feeling it.”
“Feeling it” is what great musicians do. However, a classical raga if I understand it (unlikely) is largely made up of an improvisation based on a set of rules. I suppose this is kind of like jazz, except there is more to the structure of how it should unfold. It is mostly an improvisation as opposed to something actually composed and written. For example, a raga of 90-minutes may only have about 10-15 minutes of pre-composed material — a melody, a riff, a riff plus a rhythm, etc. The rest is basically composed on the spot in accordance with a theme, such as a time of day, a mood or a color. Consider the name “White Summer,” for example. There you’ve got a season, a color, a feeling of levity… This palette then provides the context within which you are to create your continual moments of invention.
Jimmy’s stunning performance of White Summer at the Royal Albert Hall does not by any means strictly adhere to the rules and structure of an Indian classical piece. However, the improvisations that he weaves around the planned sections, one of which is Black Mountain Side, have that excitement and intensity of spontaneity; that thing that takes both musician and audience to unknown places.
Last winter, Lez Zeppelin went to play some concerts in Colorado and while there capped off the tour with an acoustic session at a private “house party” hosted by our good friend and long-standing member of the Lez Zeppelin team, Hina Chow. Hina claims that she has always had two Lez Zeppelin dreams: one was to hear In the Light live; the other, to witness White Summer performed live with a tabla player. As fortune would have it, Hina was able to finally hear In the Light a few days earlier at The Gothic Theatre in Denver when we performed Physical Graffiti in its entirety. At her loft party, she commanded a performance of White Summer and called in a tabla player named Nabin Shrestha to accompany me in this quest. I figured, this is her party she can cry if she wants to.
I had not thought much about it other than ‘oh yeah, it’ll be a fun jam’ until the day of the show. It was then that I realized Nabin was a bona fide, classical tabla virtuoso of the highest order. We’d never before played together, nor had we even met. I have never studied the form of raga, although for years I have threatened to get a sitar and learn how to play it just like George Harrison. Unlike Harrison, however, I never managed the ‘get up and go’ to go East. Nor, could I claim any knowledge of how to properly develop a theme or mood and take a proper route through the piece using from five to seven notes. Luckily, I did have some experience with a few of the key concepts, such as improvisation (also known as going out there without a clue of what you are actually going to bloody play) and being open to communication with other players (as demonstrated at Lez Zeppelin gigs for the past fifteen years). But, would this be sufficient to have a grand musical conversation with one of the best tabla players in Colorado – maybe the entire country?
This kind of scenario, I will not lie, tends to excite me. Thankfully, Nabin was the nicest guy in the world and gracious and willing to jump in there with me regardless of my glaring inexperience. He had only been given the Yardbirds recording of White Summer to learn, and of course, had learned it to the very beat figuring that I would play it the same way as on the record. Like I said, we had never met before so he couldn’t have known that this was a highly unlikely scenario. Happily, he was not averse to making it up along the way. After all, this was kind of the idea.
When the time finally rolled around to play it for an intimate audience of about forty people (a smaller audience is much scarier and don’t let anybody tell ya different), I came down with a small case of the heebie-jeebies. I sat down in the middle of the room with my two-toned Dan Electro and thought, “Where the bloody hell do I get the balls to do these sorts of things?!” Visions of Jimmy, Bert Jansch and Davy Graham floated above my head, all of them pointing a finger and smirking. Is it a form of recklessness? A source of adrenaline rush? Maybe it’s a substitute for hard drugs? I dunno. But, I do know that somehow I’ve always held fast to the belief that unless you are willing to fall on the sword or the whammy bar – take your pick — you’ll never reach the highest plane of musical possibilities. You must jump off the cliff to truly fly. Of course, you must also jump off the cliff to crash and burn, but therein lies the thrill.
I can’t say whether or not Nabin and I reached the highest musical plane in our premier duet, but there was no doubt a magical essence to the performance. It wasn’t perfect, but the way we so easily communicated with each in order to create something spontaneous from something known – and unknown — was both surprising and glorious. The feeling seemed to resonate out into the audience, as well. I could tell by the group of super cute children sitting at Nabin’s side who followed along for the entire piece with remarkable attention, clapping and swaying to the music in what appeared to be clear, unabashed enjoyment. Of course, children, with their unmitigated honesty are the scariest audience of all. So, I figured, if your act goes over in the peanut gallery, you know that it must be all right. Or, at least you’re on the road, walking towards turning ragas to riches.