Saturday, February 09, 2013

Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience - Live in St. Charles, IL - February 2, 2013

[Photos in this post by yours truly... kindly seek my permission before appropriating them for your own use.  All rights reserved.  Thank you.]

My wife Laura and I traveled to the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, Illinois from Chicago on Saturday night to see Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.  I had a pretty good idea what to expect, since there had been only one lineup change since I had last seen the band in October 2010; Dorian Heartsong has replaced Michael Devin as bassist. 
JBLZE typically plays renditions of Zeppelin songs that hew fairly closely to the studio album versions, with some embellishments from well-known live performances.  No wigs, costumes, or other gimmicks are employed – they are not that sort of tribute band.  The focus is on conveying as much of the power, delivery, and overall feel of the music of the original Hammer of the Gods.  The band sounded great from the very beginning, starting the show the way that all Led Zeppelin shows began during the 1973 and 1975 tours – with the drum introduction of Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” that John Bonham commandeered one day at Headley Grange to launch Rock and Roll.


James Dylan, Jason Bonham, and Tony Catania

Tony Catania doesn’t wear any black dragon or white poppy suits, but he did come out wearing one of Jimmy Page’s favorite fashion accessories both onstage and off – a scarf.  Sartorial notes aside, Catania has had plenty of experience capturing the Page playing style, going back at least to 1996, when he was a member of the Jason Bonham Band that recorded In The Name of My Father – The Zepset at Electric Ladyland Studios.  When I reviewed the Merrillville, Indiana show in 2010, I was fairly complimentary of Tony’s playing, but not quite glowing.  Well, let me be glowing here – the guitar tone Catania achieved all night was beautifully fat, crunchy, and delicate in all the right places.  With all the JBLZE dates under his belt over the last two-plus years, he has become more fluid and dexterous on even the most challenging Page compositions that the band performed, and to my ears there has been noticeable improvement since that Indiana show roughly 27 months ago.  His appreciation for the songs and his exultation in playing them so well came across to the crowd clearly, and they reciprocated with amazement, tremendous enthusiasm, and positive energy. 

More photos here:
http://tinyurl.com/JBLZE2013-02-02IL

Tony Catania



James Dylan gained fame among Ledheads ‘in the know’ as the vocalist for Virtual Zeppelin (a collaboration of musicians from Japan, Canada, and the United States whose individual recordings were edited and mixed by the members and then posted to YouTube beginning in 2008).  Saturday night, Jason slyly alluded to his discovery of Dylan via the internet, saying “see – there are other things on it as well...”  The crowd laughed knowingly.  Singing in the comfort of one’s home with ability to cut multiple takes is one thing, but singing in front of large crowds while performing as a dynamic frontman of a rock band is quite another, especially when one is filling the role of Robert Plant.  However, that scenario presents no problems for James Dylan.  It isn’t just that he manages to hit the notes that Plant was hitting in his vocal prime of 1968-1971, which would be impressive in its own right; Dylan also manages to recreate Plant’s disparate phrasing, intonation, and delivery from a wide array of songs in a way that is often downright eerie.  My first “goosebumps moment” of the evening came during Sick Again.  I blurted out a dumbfounded “whoa” when I heard how well he made the transition from the high and clear vocals of Rock and Roll (1971) and Celebration Day (1970) to the rough, raw, and gravelly vocals of Physical Graffiti’s final track.
James Dylan

Positioned where I was, it wasn’t always easy to see the guys at stage right... Dorian Heartsong played well and fit perfectly with the rest of the band, never hitting a bum note as far as I could tell.  He played Jonesy’s signature lines in songs like What Is and What Should Never Be with fluency, and in the best tribute to JPJ, he seemed to be listening intently to what his bandmates at all times. Heartsong looked to have a good rapport with Dylan and Catania as they converged in front of the drum riser many times during the night and locked into a groove.


Dorian Heartsong


Stephen LeBlanc – a man after my own heart in his Big Lebowski shirt – handled everything that was required of him (which was a lot), and was also observed to be a careful listener.  When he wasn’t providing essential instrumentation on keyboards, LeBlanc was able to switch to lap steel and rhythm guitar in order to augment the group’s sound with sonic textures that the audience might have known from the studio albums, but that would have been missing from a regular guitar/bass/drums lineup (like the escalating slide on Babe I’m Gonna Leave You), even one that had John Paul Jones playing bass pedals with his feet while he played keyboards, mandolin, or a triple-necked guitar…

Stephen LeBlanc

Jason Bonham was in good spirits on the night, appreciative of the response that he and his band were eliciting from the sold-out theater crowd.  The sound from his drums was excellent – deep, punchy, and powerful.  It can be difficult to explain these types of things, but Jason is drumming with more “swing” than ever these days, playing in a more patient style in places where he may have rushed through in the more distant past.  This is especially apparent when it comes the fills in a number like The Song Remains The Same.  He is able to throw in a nice little flurry and get back on beat without seeming like he is worried or hurrying to return.  He is a more relaxed and confident player these days, and after receiving such acclaim in the wake of the massively successful launch of Celebration Day, there’s no reason why that wouldn’t be the case.  The Led Zeppelin Experience show is still a very emotional journey for him, even when the show is presented several times in a week.  The adulation from the grateful audience shows just how much they not only miss Jason’s father, but also how much they love Jason for caring about the music and baring his soul for them in the stories he tells and his reaction to the home movie clips that are played on the giant screen behind him.  

Jason Bonham

Some things were less enjoyable, but they had little to do with what was transpiring on the stage…some guys directly behind us really wanted to hear Nobody’s Fault But Mine and decided to ask for it – very loudly – during every break between songs, whether or not Jason or James happened to be speaking at that moment.  During many of the songs, one of the gentlemen had the extremely annoying habit of singing the lyrics in anticipation – almost a full second ahead of the correct timing; apparently he thought he needed to prove that he knew them all.  During the intermission, he kept insisting to his friend that Zeppelin almost certainly had to have toured with a fifth member to cover all the parts being played.  That was too much for me; I turned around and informed him otherwise.  He took a moment to expectorate a large glob of tobacco juice into his clear plastic cup and then thanked me with a wide-eyed and earnest expression of gratitude and awe.  I grimaced slightly, nodded, and turned back around.  Other people in our row and just ahead seemed to be having a great time, but not good enough to refrain from making numerous trips to buy more beer in the middle of songs.  It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s disruptive and takes you out of the moment.  Laura said she had never seen as many women with hairstyles stuck in the 1985-1990 era gathered in one place before, and one lady in particular was rocking a combination of big hair and an outfit that Laura claimed she herself (with the aid of a wig) had once passed off as a 1980s-chick Halloween costume.

Laura also reported an interesting anecdote from a discussion in the ladies’ room, where there was a minor argument going on between a few women who had seen the Chicago-based “Led Zeppelin 2 – The Live Experience” tribute band at the House of Blues on a recent weekend as to which band, that one or JBLZE, were in fact the better act.  One lady insisted that since she was “more of a visual person” that LZ2 had the edge, based on their hair and movements.  Another woman agreed with her, but a third was aghast that they seemed to be missing the point, which was surely the quality of the music being played.  At that point, my wife admirably waded into the debate and sided with the third woman, declaring that she too had seen LZ2 once, but that this show from JBLZE was clearly superior and that there was really no contest.  One has to wonder if some people are actually listening to the music or if they just want something loud and semi-melodic in the background while they get wasted. 


Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience ascending the Stairway:
LeBlanc, Heartsong, Bonham, Dylan, Catania


When Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience is at its best, the band is very good indeed, and the peak of the show for me was Since I’ve Been Loving You.  James Dylan introduced it as the very first song that Jason Bonham played with Tony Catania.  They’ve really perfected this song to the point where you almost expect to hear the squeaky drum pedal from the version on the third album.  Dylan’s spine-chilling vocals carry every bit of the aching agony that this wailing blues requires, while Heartsong lays down the steady bass line and LeBlanc synths the Hammond organ, Bonham’s machine-gun drum fills simulate the jilted lover’s heart being shot to shreds while Catania alternately wrings single notes for all they’re worth and then solos rapidly like a boxer at a speed-bag.  The band was consistent across the entire set, but the elusive “fifth element” (or sixth, in this case) was found during this song.  I was reminded of something Robert Plant said about the track on a bootleg recording I listened to again recently – on May 13, 1973 in Mobile, Alabama he referred to SIBLY as “something off the third album, which we always will play as long as we're in existence. It's one of those things that we get off on a lot, you know?”

There were several other highlights.  Laura noted Your Time Is Gonna Come, Thank You, and Over The Hills and Far Away as songs she particularly enjoyed, and it's true that they were all played exceptionally well.  I would add Sick Again and The Song Remains The Same (despite a broken string), but really the band was performing at a consistently high level all night.  All in all, a very enjoyable evening.
________________
Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience is:
Jason Bonham – Drums
Tony Catania – Guitars
James Dylan – Vocals & Guitar
Dorian Heartsong – Bass
Stephen LeBlanc – Keyboards & Lap Steel & Guitar
&
Gary Hood – Harmonica (for You Shook Me and When The Levee Breaks)


Gary Hood

Setlist included:
_____________
Rock and Roll / Celebration Day / Sick Again / Babe I’m Gonna Leave You / Your Time Is Gonna Come / You Shook Me / What Is and What Should Never Be / Thank You / Immigrant Song / Moby Dick / [Intermission] / The Ocean / Over The Hills and Far Away / Since I’ve Been Loving You / The Song Remains The Same / When The Levee Breaks / Kashmir / Stairway To Heaven / Whole Lotta Love

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Flashback to DC

I was reflecting recently on my time as a US Senate intern in DC. I started going through some emails from the time, wondering if I could find some of the journal entries I had to write. I found most of them. Here is one from among the final weeks on the job... April 14, 2006:

This week was once again dominated by giving tours of the Capitol. Most of the tours were something less than great, due to the problem of having to talk over large groups of people that happened to be clogging the tour route. Monday was the day scheduled for the large pro-immigration rally in Washington, and was also an especially busy tour day. Our tour route runs down the tunnel from Dirksen into Russell and then from Russell into the Capitol, but we had to stop in the tunnel between Dirksen and Russell due to the fact that the Capitol had been declared “full.” I had to stop my group of fourteen people (fifteen is the maximum allowed to any one guide) and make small talk to pass the time. …Or so I thought. A conversation with a polite, middle-aged woman about my future plans was interrupted by a hefty guy who inserted himself in the already limited space between me and the rest of the group.

His burning question was not particularly intelligent. He demanded to know why the United States government would allow such a “golden opportunity” like the immigration rally to pass them by. He inquired why “we” didn’t just “go out n’ round ‘em up” since it would be a pretty simple task to do so. Before commenting, I made sure to clarify that I was not filling the role of Senator Durbin’s official spokesperson. However, I was not going to stand and listen to this man spout off for twenty minutes or more, so I tried my best to tactfully point out that such an activity would be impractical at best and unconstitutional at worst, given that these people were free to assemble and were not behaving violently. Also, to assume that they were all, or even mostly illegal immigrants would be a mistake. He gradually backed down, first suggesting that we could at least detain the people and check their citizenship. I asked him if he had a firm grip on how many police officers it might require to “round up” and detain over one hundred thousand people.

As we talked more, his irrational and thinly-veiled racist commentary faltered bit by bit until he was forced to admit that there was no simple solution to immigration reform, or even a simple solution to the enforcement of current immigration law.

I had fielded several phone calls at the personal office that week as well as the previous one, and had to deal with similar pronouncements and vulgar racist remarks, so I was somewhat familiar with what to anticipate. I had found though, that when given time and presented with sane arguments or simple facts that many people who regularly spat vitriol would back down just a bit over time and say that “after all, we are a nation of immigrants,” or something similar. With most calls though, there is simply not enough time to actually talk to people and most just want to say their piece and get off the line. They do not take kindly to being contradicted and will ask in a shocked tone with indignation, “Are you arguing with me?” – to which you can only reply that you are not, and are merely trying to provide some relevant information so that they may become more informed about the subject. Some will jump on that and ask if you’re implying that they are uninformed.

Taking phone calls on the immigration issue was often simultaneously the most entertaining and depressing thing that I experienced. It was entertaining because often I could tell that they simply had been told what to say by Rush Limbaugh and depressing because a significant portion of the country actually thinks the same way...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Led Zeppelin Ticket Stub - Tokyo 1972-10-02


I received an image of this ticket stub in my email today from a friend of my father's with the following text:
______
Wyatt,
Ed P. was in the Air Force in Japan in 1972 when he saw Led Zeppelin.
This is the ticket stub...knew you would like to see it, being the fan you are.
Hope all is well
Don
______

Pretty cool! The title link will lead you to the setlist for the show, which was the first one on Zeppelin's second (and final) tour of Japan. Short (and distant) clips from 8mm film of the event can be seen here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gmg7XDK2rP8

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Led Zepagain - October 29, 2010 - Merrionette Park, IL

[Concert review originally posted to For Badgeholders Only mailing list]



Led Zepagain put on a fantastic show Friday evening at 115 Bourbon Street on the South Side of Chicago, in Merrionette Park, IL. They had to deal with more technical issues than Page, Plant, Jones, and Jason Bonham did in 1988 at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary bash, but they pulled off one hell of a show nonetheless. From the opening salvo of Rock and Roll>Celebration Day to the last strains of Whole Lotta Love>Achilles Last Stand>Whole Lotta Love [reprise] (yes, a WLL-ALS medley!), the band captured the spirit of Led Zeppelin, circa Summer '73.

Zepagain followed Fair Warning (Van Halen tribute) and Blackened (Metallica tribute), even though the original program had LZ in the middle position (I joked that someone wised up enough to realize that no band should have to follow Zeppelin). I'm not a huge fan of either VH or Metallica, so I'm probably not qualified to critique either of those tribute acts. I felt a bit sorry for Fair Warning because their repeated attempts to get the crowd involved were for the most part futile. Blackened fared much better in terms of crowd involvement and interest and seemed to do a great job with the material. Zepagain had to set up during - and then wait through the judging of - a costume contest (a guy dressed as Slash [complete with actual guitar] and a woman dressed as Alice Cooper comprised the final two... the Cooper chick won). Before the show, Led Zepagain guitarist, R-O hotel resident, and FBO badgeholder Steve Z intimated that the theremin was not working correctly, and as the band set up, there were signs pointing to what lead singer Swan Montgomery acknowledged later - that the keyboards were also out of commission for the night - perhaps due to malfeasance on the part of a Southwest Airlines employee... thus, no Kashmir, Stairway, et cetera. Since this booking was 1700+ miles outside the band's normal base of operations, they had not shipped their entire instrumental arsenal - notably having to employ Blackened's drum kit (minus the second bass drum that the Sandmen
used). Led Zepagain navigated around, over, and through these obstacles to bring it on home during the course of a ~70 minute set.

I will undoubtedly leave a song out of this account, but the setlist included Rock and Roll>Celebration Day, Ramble On, Black Dog, Dazed and Confused, The Song Remains the Same, How Many More Times, Heartbreaker>Whole Lotta Love/Achilles Last Stand.

Vocalist Swan Montgomery delivered the goods with the rough-edged power and range that Robert Plant had during the 1973 American tour and thus sounded uncannily like he stepped directly out of The Song Remains The Same film. Bassist Jim Wootten's adroit playing stood out
during Ramble On, D&C, and TSRTS. Jim Kersey was relentless on drums throughout but especially impressive during Achilles. Finally, it is difficult to overstate the dexterity, dynamism, fluidity, and pure feeling that axeman Steve Zukowsky exhibited. This is going to sound over-the-top and exaggerated because people will think that I'm just flattering a fellow 'net Zeppelin' person, but I was simply blown away by how great Steve was, especially by all the little nuances he was able to incorporate from Page's work live in concert and the studio into his own style. I soon lost track of how many times I found myself grinning as I recognized yet another aural nod to a particular way that Jimmy had of playing a specific passage. Any Zeppelin fan who has watched much video of the band would also have to acknowledge that Steve has Page's stage moves down to a science, especially the Sorceror-esque arm movements.

The bow solo of Dazed was incredible - the definitive visual showcase of the evening. Apparently the high point of the evening for my wife arrived during the "got you in the sights of my..." climax of How Many More Times, since it was at that moment after "guuuuun" and the band
crashing back in that her attempt to dance with me resulted in knocking the beer bottle out of my hand and shattering it on the concrete floor below. Luckily there wasn't much harm done - it was only a Miller Lite (Miller was promoting the event and not even local favorite Goose Island 312 was available in the room where the band was playing) and it was only about 1/4 full - we laughed about our collective clumsiness and got a look of mild reproach from an employee as they cleaned up the glass. Although I had hoped to hear Achilles, I did not actually expect it, figuring instead that the band would be more likely to play the more 'radio-friendly' staples to a crowd that was seeing three different bands that night and perhaps not containing many die-hard LZ folks aside from myself. Perhaps I can chalk the good fortune of getting to hear Achilles up to whatever misfortune befell the keyboards and the subsequent elimination of Stairway et al? Either way, I roared my approval as the tales of an April morning were recounted, and Albion slept to rise again. As the show ended, Steve tossed a guitar pick my way that I was pleased to actually catch. It all added up to a very satisfying, entertaining, and enjoyable experience for this Led Zeppelin fan.

The general crowd activity and engagement level was pretty disappointing beyond the first ten feet or so in front of the stage. I had never been to that venue before and neither had my wife. She grew up relatively near there, but she said that it was completed right about the time she moved away for college. Despite the fact that no band should follow Zeppelin, the Metallica tribute might have had the best 'time slot' as far as crowd energy was concerned. I think some people left after the costume judging, which took quite a while. As happy as I was to hear such authenticity from the band, I think it was lost on some in the crowd. On the upside, Byrd - the DJ from The Loop 97.9 seemed to have some decent information about the guys, including their
'seal of approval' from Jimmy Page and the fact that Jason Bonham sat in with the band in March '09. I can only compare the crowd at Bourbon Street to the "Led Zeppelin 2" crowd at the House of Blues, which is actually downtown. LZ2's vocalist had real talent (although he didn't really know the lyrics very well), but the rest of the band was not in Led Zepagain's league - yet the crowd was going nuts for them. I hope that Led Zepagain can come back to Chicago soon, at a better location closer to the center of the city, where they will find a more appreciative audience.

Get The Led Out - March 25, 2011 - Grayslake, IL

Watch Get The Led Out's promotional video here:
http://vimeo.com/29823309#

[Concert review originally posted to For Badgeholders Only mailing list]

GET THE LED OUT
Friday, March 25, 2011
James Lumber Center for the Performing Arts
College of Lake County
Grayslake, IL

GTLO is comprised of:
FBO's own Paul Hammond - Electric/Acoustic Guitar/Mandolin
Paul Sinclair - Lead Vocals
Jimmy Marchiano - Electric/Acoustic Guitar/Backing Vocals
Billy Childs - Bass Guitar/Backing Vocals
Adam Ferraioli - Drums
Andrew Lipke - Vocals/Electric/Acoustic Guitar/Keyboards/Bongos on Royal Orleans!
Diana DeSantis - Vocals on Battle of Evermore

Once upon a time, I really wanted to review concerts for a living, but this delayed effort is another example of how I couldn't meet a deadline to save my life...

It was a distinct pleasure to experience the joy of a three-hour set from Get The Led Out on a Friday night amongst a respectful and appreciative crowd in a fairly intimate theater setting (the place was pretty much packed, with a capacity of ~600). We had a pretty smooth drive up from Chicago with minimal traffic, taking about sixty minutes to make the trip. After reading all the glowing reviews here on FBO, the band had a lot to live up to, but you can now count me among the believers.

Anyway, I'll hit some of the highlights. Since I've Been Loving You was incredible, Ramble On was a real treat, the entire acoustic set was fantastic, Dazed and Confused was appropriately menacing, Heartbreaker was joyous, and - well, I could go on and on, but there are only so many superlatives.

Guitarist Paul Hammond is simply amazing, playing with all the fluidity and speed of Jimmy Page in his prime. I can't adequately communicate just how awesome Since I've Been Loving You was with the combination of Sinclair's delivery and Hammond providing a sublime rendering of one of my all-time favorite Page solos. Excellent. The same can be said with Paul's delicate picking on Over The Hills and Far Away and Bron-yr-aur. Great stuff.

Hammond was ably assisted by Jimmy Marchiano, who shared the spotlight in a phenomenal Heartbreaker medley and spot-on Stairway solo, and jack-of-all-trades Andrew Lipke who played some guitar, keyboards, and even a bit of bongos on Royal Orleans, which was a tremendous surprise to hear.

You knew Billy Childs was going to be great all night after hearing him in Good Times Bad Times, which had me hoping for the addition of The Lemon Song to the set. Maybe next time? Adam Ferraioli rounded out the powerful engine room of the rhythm section and acquitted himself magnificently on Moby Dick as well as (perhaps more difficult but less-noticed) tracks like Dazed and Confused, and keeping the driving tempo of Kashmir. However, GTLO needs to make sure they mike him up better for the introduction of The Ocean - I couldn't hear that count-in very well!

Vocalist Paul Sinclair is not a carbon copy of Robert Plant (no one is), but he reaches almost all the notes Plant was able to in the 1968-1971 peak years, and does an excellent job channeling Plant with all of his idiosyncratic inflections and flourishes that we all recognize from the studio versions. Sometimes I'll see someone try to do a Zeppelin song and I just end up cocking my head to one side or cringing, but with Sinclair, there was just a lot of nodding and smiling - he was nailing it. It needs to be said just how effectively GTLO employs backing vocals from Lipke, Marchiano, and Childs to augment and enhance what Sinclair is able to do, resulting in a great layered sound. There are many examples, but Misty Mountain Hop, Good Times Bad Times, and Your Time is Gonna Come particularly come to mind. Certainly the studio version of Ramble On would be impossible to perform without competent co-vocalists, but with Get The Led Out,
it was a pleasure. One can't help but wonder how much of a different live band Zeppelin would have been if Plant could have relied on a little help from the other guys to get through some of the material, as he was able to do later with Charlie Jones in Strange Sensation for In The Light or with Jason Bonham for Misty Mountain Hop at the O2.

The stunningly beautiful acoustic interlude (which begins with a nice nod to The Song Remains The Same film) reached its ultimate height during The Battle of Evermore and the addition of lovely Ms. DeSantis to the mix. It was a cool moment to watch Sinclair reach over to the volume knob on Paul Hammond's mandolin to gradually increase it during the introduction. As their rendition progressed flawlessly, it was difficult not to wonder what the hell Zep were thinking in talking Jonesy into singing Sandy Denny's part on the 1977 tour... who thought that was a good idea? I love JPJ, but surely if they wanted to do the song that badly, they could have found a comely lass with a good voice to bring along with the rest of their large entourage?

It was really interesting to hear the studio version of No Quarter in a live setting. It didn't sound right to Laura because she's been subjected to so many live versions, but of course the studio edition has a bit of a different vibe (achieved, if memory serves, by manipulating the playback to get that slightly druggy, slowed sound).

Thanks to all of Get The Led Out for sticking around for a meet-and-greet session after the show. It was great to meet and talk with the band, especially Paul Hammond, who had graciously included some of my pre-show requests like TY, OTHAFA, and "something from Presence" (Royal Orleans was a real shock - I'd never heard anyone attempt that, and they really pulled it off). Laura and I both had a fantastic time, and I picked up a nice GTLO t-shirt as well. Can't wait till you guys make your way back to the Chicago area!


The order is incorrect, but the setlist included:
Immigrant Song
Misty Mountain Hop
Good Times Bad Times
Since I've Been Loving You
The Ocean
Ramble On
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
Bron-yr-aur
Going To California
Bron-yr-aur Stomp
Battle of Evermore
Black Dog
No Quarter
Your Time is Gonna Come
ROYAL ORLEANS!
Moby Dick
Thank You
Dazed and Confused
Heartbreaker (Electric Guitar Showcase Medley)>
Livin' Lovin' Maid
Kashmir
Stairway To Heaven
Over The Hills and Far Away
Whole Lotta Love

Saturday, September 24, 2011

DVD Review: Robert Plant's Blue Note

(Review originally written for the Led Zeppelin email list, For Badgeholders Only)

In the first few minutes, I was rolling my eyes as a rip-off (cover?) of Since I've Been Loving You played in the background while being treated to what seemed like way more clips of bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and the Rolling Stones than anything from Robert Plant. However, this DVD is not like one of those Biography channel type things which are about 42 minutes of mostly garbage content spread out over an hour timeslot... Robert Plant's Blue Note has a running time of 2 hours, 37 minutes, plus a little 5.5 minute bonus clip discussing Lead Belly and Plant (in terms of Zeppelin and Plant/Krauss). Despite the questionable decision to use the SIBLY cover (it led me to believe that I wouldn't be hearing any actual Zeppelin/Plant music) many times
throughout the video, more appropriate audio and video footage is employed much of the time.

This is not a Led Zeppelin documentary and should not be construed as one - so if you go into it expecting a complete breakdown of Plant's time in Zeppelin, you're going to be disappointed. There is quite a bit of time spent on Plant's influences as a teenager and how they impacted him in Zep, but most of the focus is on the early years, including claims that Plant's position in Zep was not secure even after the first album. There are clips from Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds (with and without Page), and Zep clips (all available on the official 2003 DVD, like Danish TV), as well as audio from Band of Joy (from Sixty-Six to Timbuktu). The focus on Zeppelin is brief - limited mostly to the band's formation, moving very quickly to spotlighting Kashmir and then skipping over any detail about why the band ended. The lack of emphasis on Plant's time in Zeppelin could certainly be criticized, although the program might have been five hours long if they covered Zep in depth. Skimming over the Zeppelin period did not bother me, since we have all seen quite a few Zeppelin documentaries that skip over the aftermath of the band and the solo years only to tack on a bit about Page/Plant at the end (sometimes with a mention of Jonesy's exclusion).

With those caveats out of the way, I will say that this DVD covers Plant's post-Zep period better than his official Nine Lives documentary or anything else I've seen. Particularly fascinating to me was the in-depth interview with Robbie Blunt, since I can't recall seeing another interview with him anywhere. Blunt was obviously very proud of his work with Robert in those crucial years in the wake of Zeppelin's demise, but he was also enormously frustrated by the way the partnership ended - mystified by Plant's efforts on Shaken 'n' Stirred to distance himself from everything familiar (or commercially successful). Blunt shares a great anecdote about being coerced into working with a Roland guitar synthesizer. Plant had chided Blunt by telling him something to the effect of "well, Jimmy's getting on fine with his", but apparently Benji Lefevre talked to Page's guitar tech, who confided that Jimmy had chucked his out the window by that time... He also talks about Slow Dancer as the most Zeppelin-esque of all the Plant/Blunt compositions - something with which I think most of us would agree. Blunt gives an enlightening and enjoyable interview.

Next up was Phil Johnstone, whose interview takes a similar path from initial euphoria at being on the same page with Robert to eventual frustration at not being able to find common ground and produce a final product that pleased Plant; though he thought he knew what Robert wanted, by the end he also knew that he was not the guy for the job. Johnstone essentially describes Plant's eagerness to combine the American West Coast elements of Moby Grape & others with North African music, all combined together with rock and folk instrumentation/song structure...and Johnstone admits that he is basically a pop guy and wasn't cut out to provide Robert with what he really desired - which leads nicely into the Unledded collaboration with Jimmy Page.

This period is covered well, with a Hossam Ramzy interview providing most of the content. Ramzy raves about being able to watch Page and Plant burn through Since I've Been Loving You on a nightly basis and talks about the difficulty his players had with things like Friends and Four Sticks. Also of note is a fairly extensive piece on the influence of Egyptian vocalist extraordinaire Oumme Kalsoum (many spelling variations exist)on Plant over the years in various incarnations, most of which was new information for me. I would have been impressed if the documentary had also included audio from the 1972 Page/Plant trip to India when they attempted to play Four Sticks and Friends (available on numerous bootlegs), but while those sessions were mentioned briefly, they were not heard.

Unfortunately, Walking Into Clarksdale is glossed over as a disappointing follow-up to the Unledded TV special and subsequent tour, and the documentary moves pretty rapidly through the Priory of Brion years and into Strange Sensation, the music of which in the narrative retrospect of the DVD seems like a logical culmination of Plant's quest for the perfect amalgamation of styles... but just when it seems all is right in his world, we lurch off in another direction toward the mountain music influence on Raising Sand and the collaboration with Alison Krauss and the next step of Band of Joy. It's been a few days now, but I don't remember the Zeppelin reunion at the Ertegun tribute show being mentioned on the DVD, so add that to the short list of grievances.

Robert Plant's Blue Note includes interviews (that were apparentlydone specifically for this DVD) with:
Nigel Williamson (author of The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin)
Barney Hoskyns (the caption claims he wrote a book called "Trampled Under Foot" [sic] about the excesses of Zep, but all I can find is a book on the fourth album for a Rock of Ages series)
Chris Dreja (Yardbirds)
Robbie Blunt (RP guitarist and songwriting partner circa 1981-1985)
Phil Johnstone (RP guitarist/keyboardist and songwriting partner circa 1987-1993)
Hossam Ramzy (leader of the Egyptian orchestra on the Unledded/No Quarter project)
John Lomax III (grandson of John Lomax, son of Alan Lomax - interviewed about Leadbelly and Raising Sand)

All of the other interview footage and onstage clips of Plant, Zeppelin, Page/Plant, Strange Sensation, Alison Krauss, T-Bone Burnett, et cetera that augment the documentary... all of that is brought in from readily available sources like the Canadian radio interview Plant did last year, the 2003 Zeppelin DVD, the Page/Plant Unledded DVD, Strange Sensation Soundstage, Festival in the Desert, CMT Crossroads, By Myself BBC broadcast, Nine Lives DVD and not done specifically for this Blue Note DVD. I didn't see anything "new" in that regard.

Some will find fault with the amount of time spent on discussing Plant's influences (and the inclusion of audio and video of those influences), but with a documentary of this length, I didn't have a real problem with it. Even with the inclusion of material that most fans already have is not a significant issue, since it provides context for the subjects being discussed. The most informative and interesting parts are the interviews with Blunt, Johnstone, and Ramzy. The documentary could have benefited from new interviews with other key contributors (like Justin Adams, Doug Boyle, Francis Dunnery, Porl Thompson, Skin Tyson, and Buddy Miller, for instance), especially at the expense of some of the time allotted to Williamson and Hoskyns, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were contacted and declined. All in all, this is a solid effort well worth watching for any fan of Robert Plant's work, especially for those fans who appreciate at least some of his post-Zeppelin output.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience - Live in Merrillville, Indiana - October 21, 2010

First, some news from before the show. I did not pay the $166 price for the official ticketed meet & greet with Jason, but I met (and greeted!) him nevertheless - outside the venue on his way in from his tour bus. A few other guys were there with their Led Zeppelin LPs, a CD booklet from the In The Name of My Father - The Zepset disc, drumheads, etc. In retrospect, I probably should have brought the Third Eye O2 BluRay cover, but what I did bring was the CD booklet from the Black Country Communion album. This precipitated a conversation with Jason's assistant (spiky-blond-haired gentleman named Burly/Burley/or perhaps Buehrle, like the White Sox pitcher...).

Anyway, Jason and his assistant were both very pleased that I had brought this to get signed and made various remarks like, "oh - see this guy is up to date - he's got the current stuff..." When his assistant asked if I liked it, I replied in the affirmative. It really has grown on me quite a bit, and I definitely have no issues with Jason's drumming on it, so I was being honest. Then Buehrle told me that BCC will be doing another album and will be doing it very soon - either going into the studio again in the new year or actually coming out with the new album in the early part of next year - I wasn't clear on which, but it's more likely that they'll be going back into the studio in January. Jason confirmed this when I got to speak with him very briefly one-on-one. There were only four other guys there, but they kept asking him what the show was going to be like, which I found to be a waste of everyone's time since they'd find out for themselves in another three hours or so... oh well. Regarding BCC, it sounds like the band wants to have two albums' worth of material under their belt before they do a full-scale tour.

One anecdote from Jason regarding the rehearsals for the Ertegun tribute: apparently Jason was asking so many questions about Led Zeppelin that Jimmy Page compared him to a journalist and politely asked him to please shut up! Other than that, I didn't learn very much. Most of what he talked with the other fans about was the emotional nature of doing the show and how he integrated the various film clips. I was going to ask about those five or six songs that he had worked on with Page and Jones in 2008 or at least talk with him a little more about Black Country Communion, but it was obvious that he was being ushered into the venue. Plus, I imagine it's probably not good business strategy to essentially give away for free what you're asking other people to pay a good bit of money for (the meet & greet).

All in all, it was a great bonus to the whole trip. A couple hours later, I was inside the venue and looking for the restroom when I saw the 'official' meet and greet area curtained off, with Jason at a table signing drum heads and signing pictures for a fairly sizable group of people in a pre-gig reception. It looked a lot less cool than the kind of interaction I had outside the venue.
___

Review/Analysis

...As for evaluating the actual performance, I'll qualify my remarks by disclosing the fact that I was in the front row and acknowledging that probably affected my impressions. I bought a ticket a week or so ago but decided to see what was available on the day of the show and ended up upgrading (not knowing it would be *that* much of an upgrade at the time). Unfortunately I forgot my earplugs and it was pretty damn loud sitting directly in front of the guitar amps. My right ear still hurts. Anyway - what I'm saying is that based on my positioning and the volume, I was not able to be as critical as I might have been if I was further away or could hear better and discern individual notes better without being blasted by a wall of sound (which is how it felt much of the time).

It sounded like lead vocalist James Dylan of Virtual Zeppelin did a fantastic job all night. This is not to say he was an auditory dead-ringer for Plant the whole night, but he sang his ass off. I've read some concerns about his ability to get through the entire tour singing this way because no one knows if his voice has been tested like this before, but I have to say that I was very impressed with his power and range. His best moments came during Since I've Been Loving You and Kashmir. Having seen each of the ex-Zeppeliners in concert at solo shows and then at the O2, there's always at least one or two goosebump-inducing moments. I wasn't sure I'd have that at this concert, but SIBLY provided a couple. Dylan's vocals/phrasing during Since I've Been Loving You were so close to what you hear from Plant on the third album that they defied belief. Incredible. This didn't happen with every song, but he's really got that one down. Similarly, Kashmir owed everything to Plant's delivery at the O2 and it was magnificent. I think Dylan's had a pretty fair amount of training and I bet he'll be fine through the end of the tour.

Lead guitarist Tony Catania was not perfect, but he was very good. He has studied Page's technique pretty closely and showed great enthusiasm for the music all night long. There were some missed notes, and sticky-fingered flubs at various times and the tone wasn't always right, but overall he's very competent and capable. Catania's playing was most impressive on Dazed and Confused, The Lemon Song, Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, and Black Dog. He had a bit of trouble with Over The Hills and Far Away and some interesting choices in Stairway, but I didn't have any serious problems with his playing. He was infinitely better than whomever played Jimmy's parts in the "Led Zeppelin 2" tribute band.

I didn't pay close attention to bassist Michael Devin or keyboardist/lap steel/guitar player Stephen LeBlanc except during select moments during the show - they were on the other side of the stage from where I was - but they didn't hit any clunkers that made me whip my head over to them to cringe or drop my jaw in awe. Devin played well when I really noticed him during The Lemon Song and during Good Times Bad Times, so I think he was probably fine. I couldn't hear much of what LeBlanc did except Your Time Is Gonna Come, which was fine. When he was adding accents on acoustic and lap steel, it wasn't very audible to me.

To Jason's drumming - he did not disappoint. He has his own style still powerful, but more straight ahead with fewer fills than his dad, and when he does add fills, they're more labored, as in Kashmir for example. However, as weird as it is, one has to realize that he is now older than his father ever got to be, so who knows how quick even John Henry Bonham would have been in his early-mid 40s?

First of all, if you are a complete purist, you will probably find a ton of faults with the show. Obviously with a bald, bearded lead singer, it's not a visual tribute a la Led Zepagain, and it's not completely a Get The Led Out kind of thing with the focus on all the right gear and getting the songs note-perfect. JBLZE has five members, and while there are the requisite Les Paul, Gibson Double Neck, and Danelectro axes, despite the fact that I'm not a gear-head, I made plenty of mental notes during the show where I was easily able to discern that something was 'off' or not quite right. That being said, this show that Jason is doing is definitely not designed for the folks who might be bothered by such things. This audience just wanted to hear some Led Zeppelin music and were thrilled to have it presented by someone with a genetic link to the real thing, and weren't deterred by anything like Jason not having a tambourine on his hi-hat.

You could tell that Jason got emotional during several points in the show. This was - I think - the eleventh show of 37 or so on the tour, so I wonder if those moments can possibly have the same import to him now as they did the first few shows, and whether by the end of the tour he'll be very affected at all.


Photos:
http://tinyurl.com/JBLZEMerrilIN

Set 1
Rock and Roll>
Celebration Day
I Can't Quit You Babe
*Home Movies-Jason Talks*
Your Time is Gonna Come
Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
*Jason Talks - similar introduction to what Robert used for this song at O2...*
Dazed and Confused
What Is and What Should Never Be
The Lemon Song
*Jason speaks of emotional effect of next song*
Thank You
Moby Dick - *Jason drums along with footage of JHB at RAH '70 and MSG '73*
Set Break - 20 Minutes

Set 2
*Home Movies - footage of Jason, Pat and John... looks like it's an
extended/full cut of what was edited down for TSRTS film*
Good Times Bad Times
Since I've Been Loving You
Black Dog
When The Levee Breaks - *Jason drums with original drum backing track*
*Jason speaks, takes a Red Bull break...*
The Ocean
Over The Hills and Far Away
I'm Gonna Crawl
*slight break - footage of Jason arriving at O2, voice-over comments
about the gig*
Stairway To Heaven
Kashmir
*Encore Break*
Whole Lotta Love

Twenty songs played over the course of roughly three hours and five minutes, including a twenty-minute set break in the middle, one minor break before Stairway and Kashmir, and then a final encore break before WLL. Probably a solid 2.5 hours of actual Zeppelin songs.

Moby Dick was pretty well done with the video and audio accompaniment from John Bonham from Royal Albert Hall and TSRTS footage from the Garden. I didn't feel that it was too long, but I did feel like it was a little odd to watch Jason watching his monitor and trying to mirror his deceased father's motions. Beyond any psychological analysis, it just invited direct comparison between the two drummers and did not flatter the one who is still with us.

WTLB uses the original JHB drum track from the fourth album to augment Jason's work - this probably had just as much to do with the difficulty of replicating that sound on stage as it did with any sort of tribute. It was pretty cool to see Catania play slide on what I'm pretty sure was a Fender XII (it resembled the guitar that Page played at Jeff Beck's R&R HoF on Bolero/Immigrant Song). Meanwhile LeBlanc looked to be wailing away on his lap steel, but again - it was so loud that I couldn't discern how much he was really contributing.

I'm Gonna Crawl was a real highlight since I've never seen anyone play it live before. Dylan and Catania both acquitted themselves brilliantly - the keyboards also sounded good. I was a little surprised and disappointed that nothing from Presence turned up in the set, but hearing I'm Gonna Crawl partially made up for that oversight.

After IGC, the band left the stage and some footage of the O2 appeared on the screens (footage of the venue itself, not the concert), video of Jason arriving at the arena and sitting by himself in the otherwise empty seats. His voiceover during this talks about how he was handling the enormity of the event in the weeks and days leading up to the show and also says something like "the internet can not be your friend" - talking about negative things he read about himself being named as the drummer for the show and doubting himself... I'm pretty sure he should have left that stuff out. Not that he shouldn't talk about the doubts he had, but to put it in the voiceover and make it a regular part of the show seems like an odd decision. It has the effect of demoting him and I couldn't help but think back to the O2 when the guys all embraced and took their bow, but then Jason bowed to the other three in an "I'm not worthy" gesture. I'm probably reading into things too much, but I don't think Page, Plant, or Jones thought that was necessary or appropriate - it set Jason apart at the very moment that he should have stood with them as an equal.

The drum stool remained empty for the beginning of Stairway and Catania used a standing acoustic guitar to pick the introduction before using the double neck. Dylan had an acoustic strapped around him and played it during Catania's electric solo, which was a little weird, but I had no complaints about the vocal climax and coda, so I didn't stress about it too much. The break in Whole Lotta Love was vaguely 1975-ish, but different. The theremin section was brief.

Parting words... I feel like almost every Zeppelin fan would enjoy the show that Jason is putting on. As I said, I admit that I was probably casting a less critical eye and ear toward things than I otherwise might have, due to my proximity to the stage, it was hard not to get caught up in the moment. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether Jason should be doing something like this in exactly this way (billing it as a "Led Zeppelin Experience" in lights), but if you approach it as a sort of extra-special tribute band, it's worth the price of admission - you'll most likely have a good time. As long as Jason doesn't make a habit of touring with Led Zeppelin as part of his billing, I don't think there is much wrong with this. There's no reason that he can't go on the road in the future with a band of his choice and play Zeppelin songs, but they shouldn't comprise those entire future sets. I was glad to hear that Black Country Communion will be extended - not because it's the greatest band in the world, but because I think it's healthy for Jason to have his own thing going that is not tied so closely to the identity of his father. This whole tour is probably a bit of a cathartic experience and he will probably mentally benefit from it.

The Star Plaza Theater's capacity is 3400 according to a sign outside the box office. I'd put the show's attendance at roughly 1800-2000. The floor was almost entirely full, but fans in the mezzanine/balcony were few and far between. I can only assume that booking a small theater in Chicago was a lot more expensive and that's why they booked this place in NW Indiana (it was about an hour's drive for me from the city).

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: Robert Plant - Band of Joy

Steve Sauer has graciously invited me to post my review on Led Zeppelin News as a guest contributor. I thank him for the opportunity to share my thoughts on Robert Plant's new album, Band of Joy. Steve has done a fantastic job of providing background information and analysis of the original songs that Plant covers on this disc, so I don't feel too badly about not mentioning all of the original artists in my review.

Band of Joy
begins with "Angel Dance" - a strong opener with a great groove. Unfortunately the ringing sound (tambourine, I'm guessing) that pops up regularly every so often is very annoying to me - kind of like I suppose a dog whistle would be, if I were a dog... If I could only remove that, it would not just be a good track, but a great one.

"House of Cards" could be improved by making the production a little less muddy. I understand that it was a choice, but to me it just sounds like I'm listening to a static-y radio broadcast. Around 1:44 into the song, the static recedes for a bit for the "and the birds are wheelin'..." section and it sounds fantastic. I love the "and cracked and it's shaking" line - it's delivered perfectly - but then the static aspect returns around 2:15. This song works better live from the recordings I've heard.

I enjoy "Central Two-O-Nine". It's a fun little foot-stomper that would fit in well with a latter-day Zep acoustic set that might also include "Poor Tom".

"Silver Rider" is a dystopian epic - almost up there with "Darkness Darkness" as an enduring favorite cover by Plant. I bought Low's The Great Destroyer a couple months ago to hear this track and "Monkey" in advance of Band of Joy's release. The original "Silver Rider" is a little too achingly restrained for my taste, but Plant's version lets loose just the right amount. A standout track. Buddy Miller plays excellent, haunting guitar, and Patty Griffin's vocal accompaniment might be better here than anything else she does on the album.

Byron House's bass on "You Can't Buy My Love" is satisfyingly dirty and makes the song work much better than it otherwise would. The vocals are fine - there's a trademark Robert moment around 1:50. Not a substantial song, but fun. It probably should not have followed "Silver Rider" on the album and might have been better off appearing later on this disc.

"Falling in Love Again" is a very nice vocal showcase for Plant at this point in his career - his voice sounds rich and smooth. The steel guitar around 1:50 is a little too country/twangy for my liking; a short, sharp electric guitar solo might have improved it, but that's just me.

Unfortunately, "The Only Sound that Matters" begins with more of that extra-twangy steel guitar. The vocals are pushed forward a bit more in this song and sometimes the articulation isn't where it should be - the words sound a little 'thick'. This gets better around 2:15, but then there's more of the twangy guitar.

"Monkey" is perfectly ominous. The rumbling bass and drums, the distorted guitar, the perfectly matched dual vocals... another Low cover, and another standout track. A very good original that is taken to a higher level by Robert and his band. The only thing that detracts is more of that high-pitched ringing that was heard in "Angel Dance". Thankfully there's not quite as much and it's not as noticeable.

"Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday" features some pleasant banjo picking. The vocals are understated, whispered until around 1:40 when they become more forceful. Not my favorite track, but it picks up nicely in the last minute or so.

Plant, Buddy Miller, and Marco Giovino team up to make "Harm's Swift Way" one of the better tracks on the album. There is a confidence and strength to this song that contrasts with the plaintive and vulnerable nature of Plant's singing elsewhere on the disc.

"Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down" could have been a Fate of Nations B-side with Rainer Ptacek like "Dark Moon". Spooky...

I've been struggling to figure out what past Plant album that "Even This Shall Pass Away" sounds like it belongs on, but it's somewhere between Shaken 'n Stirred and the previously unreleased 1987 Now and Zen-era track "Upside Down" that appeared on Sixty-Six To Timbuktu. Either way, it's kind of funky and a little odd, but it works as the final track of the CD, probably about as well as "Brother Ray" did on Mighty Rearranger.

A pretty good album overall - I give it a 7 out of 10 and place it somewhere in the middle in terms of Robert's post-Zeppelin work, below Pictures at Eleven (which has grown on me and really benefited from the remastering job for Nine Lives), Fate of Nations, and Mighty Rearranger, which are all big favorites.

I hope that Robert gets inspired to do some more writing of his own for his next album. Mighty Rearranger was very strong lyrically and musically following Dreamland, which was almost entirely a covers album, so perhaps history will repeat itself and we'll get a strong new collection of Plant originals in a couple years.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Finally Framed - Them Crooked Vultures


2009.08.09 Metro Chicago
Them Crooked Vultures
First Live Performance


2010.05.18 Aragon Ballroom Chicago
Them Crooked Vultures
Last Show of 2010 American Tour


Back from the framing shop today - they look great up on the wall!
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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mystery

Why did I ever think it would be a good idea for me to choose a career for which I would have to speak to large groups of people every day?

Very stupid.