The prospect of new studio material from the Zeppelin camp seemed like a pipe dream in the early '90's. Rumors abounded about the possibility of the mighty Zeppelin taking flight again. While '94's "Unledded" reunion of guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant didn't feature much in the way of new music, only 3 songs, it did contain some great re-workings of Zeppelin classics fleshed out with an orchestra and additional sidemen. One of the 3 new songs, "Wonderful One", certainly gave listeners a taste of what a full fledged Page/Plant reunion with new music could be.
Returning the core of the Unledded band, drummer Michael Lee and bassist Charlie Jones, Page & Plant go for a stripped down, live in the studio sound. Walking into Clarksdale steps away from the Page guitar army approach and yet, at the same time, close listening reveals numerous guitar overdubs. Many of these overdubs are employed quite subtly, ala the acoustic guitar in the 1979 Zeppelin classic, "All My Love". Nor does the album blow you away with brute force. What makes Walking into Clarksdale successful is its more quiet moments, of which there are plenty.
"Shining in the Light" opens the album with an almost Led Zeppelin III feel. Jones and Lee lay down an impeccable groove that supports Page's acoustic guitar perfectly. Slashing electric guitars slice through and Plant sounds wonderfully engaged. While this up-tempo romp is a delightful reminder of what Page & Plant can conjure up with an acoustic guitar and a killer rhythm section, the slower, almost Doors like (think "The End") tracks is where things get interesting. "Blue Train", "When I Was A Child", "Please Read the Letter", and, perhaps, the best song on the album, "When the World was Young" finds Page and Plant inhabiting a space neither musician has frequented. The album does feature several hard rocking tunes that may remind one to put up any loose nails. "Burning Up" is aptly titled. A powerful number that would feature the best electric guitar riff on the album if it weren't for the title cut that summons up a veritable smorgasbord of blues images. Plant's line about being "Out of time, religion and words" is a classic and when Plant sings about the sun going down you can almost envision Legba heading down to the nearest crossroads to tune Poor Bob's guitar. Jimmy Page gives the track a splash of Yardbirds psychedelia, Zeppelin stomp and 3 killer solo's. It's at this point of the record you begin to realize this is a serious attempt at making something that is more than just a reunion between two old mates, but more of a rejoining. The choice of Lee and Jones from Plant's solo band gives Page the best rhythm section since John Bonham and another bassist named Jones, and, like Zeppelin, Lee & Jones make whatever Page & Plant elects to do work. While many have acknowledged Steve Albini's contribution to the album, Page and Plant's production is on target. They don't try to recreate the past, not do they toss it aside as if it never happened. They carefully walk the narrow path of balancing where they've been and where they are going.
As far as I'm concerned this was, by far, the best album of 1998. Why it didn't sell in droves defies logic. The tour to support it was a course in how rock music should be played and presented: tight but loose, & minimal stage production. Just 4 men, there instruments, a good sound system and a few lights. With a larger than life legend to live up to and an uncertain future before them, they played with abandon on the supporting tour. They spit out Zeppelin classic with fire and injected the new tunes with the same take no quarter attitude. Page and Plant have yet to follow up this album, although Plant has recently said he fully expects them to make more records. While Walking into Clarksdale may not be "Physical Graffiti", it's the best album Plant or Page has made since the demise of Led Zeppelin.