PLANT, PAGE AND ME --
A CELLIST TELLS HOW HE ROCKED THE CIVIC ARENA
By: PAUL CRITSER
(Paul Critser performs full-time with the Pittsburgh Ballet and Opera in addition to various free-lance activities.)We still listen to the music of Bach and Beethoven, but in 200 years will
people still listen to Led Zeppelin? My parents convinced me with this
argument, intellectually, that a rock 'n' roll concert was not so much
music as it was an event. Nonetheless, I continued to listen. My parents'
reasoningsimply added to the exciting tinge of naughtiness which
accompanied intellectual rebellion.
I was jolted by that same rebellious spirit upon being hired for Led
Zeppelin's backup orchestra last month. Finally, a kind of revenge on my
parents. Not only was I going to be playing rock 'n' roll on my cello, I was
going to be playing with the very band about whose music my parents used to
scream, "Turn it down!"
"Maybe there will be some hot groupies there!" a friend said, grinning
evilly. My "intellectual" approach to the concert was not shared by
everyone in the orchestra. But clearly, this was going to be an event. Now, what
to expect: Groupies? Drug-crazed fans? Fights? Riots? All of the above? Or
worse yet, pathetic old rockers.
Was this going to be just another day in the life of your average
free-lance musician? No way!
Forget any thoughts of this being a "party down with the band, man"
scene. This was business. Read down the charts, take a break and then get out
on stage and do it, unrehearsed, with the band in front of 20,000 fans. This
was not a time to have doubts about your performing skills.
We rehearsed in a cafeteria and never saw the band till concert time. The
pianist/conductor/arranger was no
thump-a-chair-with-a-beer-bottle-to-keep-the-beat musical illiterate.
Apparently he was responsible for at least a few of the arrangements in the
"Daltrey Sings Townshend" concert at Star Lake we played a few months back. But
we didn't have time to get that familiar with him. I never even learned his
He communicated quickly and easily with seasoned orchestra musicians.
There was no doubt that he was a pro. He probably understood our business
better than we understood his. Yet his rehearsal setup was reminiscent of a
thousand garage bands. He directed us from behind a Kurzweil PC88 keyboard and
a $100 portable CD player that he patched through a Fender Champion
amplifier. The sound quality was surprisingly good. When I got home later, I
pulled out my old Fender Champ and plugged in my portable CD just to test the
concept, lest he have some super-secret patch cables hooked up to his system.
But no. It works! The sound is great! Now I know how I am going to entertain at
my next party.
We read down the charts without much difficulty, though the rhythms
could get tricky at times. In two hours we had played through each tune,
playing some cuts like "Kashmir" a few times along with the CD recording.
"Ladies and gentlemen," our conductor then said, "that's the way it usually
goes." With a grin he added, "Let's hope the band decides to play it like that
tonight." In other words, anything could happen on stage. That's the excitement
of a live performance, the element of the unknown, which no recording will
ever be able to capture. And, hopefully, that same electric excitement will be
the savior of live music as an art form, whether it is rock 'n' roll or
classical or new age.
Next we had a half-hour sound check on the stage. Twenty minutes of the
check was spent getting used to the amplified sound. Despite any claims by
music video fanatics or promoters, acoustic sound through a mike is very
different from un-miked acoustic sound. Some electronics wiz will make a
million bucks some day inventing headphones that accurately mix the
individual player's sound with the sound of the whole group. Getting used to
hearing the instrument's sound coming from a direction other than one's
instrument can be difficult for people who don't do it very often. This
heightened the difficulty level of the performance yet another notch. What was
going to happen to the sound with the addition of a boisterous audience?
Dinner time: I have no idea who was responsible for the catering,
whether it was promoters or the Zep themselves, but we dined like kings and
queens. Swordfish, ribs, snow peas, layer cake, cheesecake, coffee, the
works and more. All you could eat. All exquisitely done. Clearly not the
miserly offering free-lancers are used to. As we ate, Mr. Page walked
through the room. So technically we did "see" part of the band before the
show. But that was it. Next step, concert time.
The orchestra sat out the first set, which was a blessing because we
could step out of our dressing room door to front row seats. There they
were. Twenty feet from us. Plant and Page. Looking older, but just as
impressive. I had seen them recently on MTV, but TV did not do them
justice. Live, their presence simply reached out from the stage. And from the
sound of the audience, Plant and Page obviously reached the furthest sections
of the arena. The guitar licks were there. The voice was there. And soon, we
The charts we had played in rehearsal took shape in performance. "Oh
yeah. This is that tune!" I thought as I recognized where out parts fit in. The
band made us fit in too, applauding us, giving us bows and thumbs-up gestures
throughout the show. And yes, we made the overhead video screens. I was that
bearded cellist you might have seen sawing away during "Four Sticks" and my
favorite of the evening, "Kashmir." I felt so thoroughly at home. So into the
moment. So totally psyched at being part of one of the biggest events in my
musical career. Finally I was playing those great, exotic background riffs
and licks I had always loved about Led Zeppelin, and playing with the legends
themselves. "Do you feel it?" Plant would ask the audience. "Yes!" I screamed
back with 20,000 others.
In the future I hope not to jump to conclusions when I hear children
listening to raucous music. They might be hearing something in it more than me.
They might just be having fun with it. People may not be listening to music
like Led Zeppelin 200 years from now, but in the words of Mr. Page as he signed
an autograph, "Did you have fun? That's what it's all about, isn't it?
Especially at my age."
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF:
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PT) - FRIDAY APRIL 14, 1995
Edition: SOONER Section: ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT Page: 27
DIALOG(R)File 718:Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
(c) 1995 PG Publishing. All rts. reserv.