By Mike Finkelstein
On Thursday night two of the better tribute bands rocked a Twilight Dance program at the Santa Monica Pier to a hugely enthusiastic crowd of thousands. On a day that reached 104 F in some places, it was a pleasant 40 degrees cooler on the pier when the show started. The Pier concerts have two levels for viewers, the stage level itself and the beach below, which was filled with picnickers and beach blankets. By all appearances everyone had a great time.
The goals in presenting tributes to iconic bands like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin are to look and sound exactly like the eminent originals. If the audience can suspend their doubts and allow the band to convince them that they are watching the originals, then a tribute band has succeeded. Details are crucial and the more a band delivers, the better they will succeed with audiences who are very likely to scrutinize every aspect of the performance with a fine-toothed comb. In photos and film footage, there is much documentation available as to how the rock idols moved, dressed and played. Ideally, the members of a tribute band will bear a very close physical resemblance to the original persons they portray and have the spot-on musicianship to play their parts perfectly. Add appropriate period clothes and instruments, and a first rate tribute band can develop a convincingly authentic show.
Led Zepagain has been delivering the goods for upwards of a decade, paying tribute to perhaps the biggest enchilada of them all in rock and roll: Led Zeppelin. Over the years they have won awards and even the praise of Jimmy Page, who founded LZ. The crowd at the Pier was revved up for what would probably be the closest that most of them will ever get to seeing a live, vintage Led Zeppelin show. And it’s a resounding compliment to Led Zepagain’s power to evoke a Led Zeppelin concert that the crowd was this pumped all the way through the performance.
Led by “Robert Plant” (Swan Montgomery) Led Zepagain hit the stage dressed in Houses of the Holy era Zeppelin threads and, without costume changes, laid down a comprehensive but involved set of the LZ catalog through the Physical Graffiti album. “Jimmy Page” (Steve Zukowsky) wore the familiar black dragon and stars ensemble and played sunburst Les Pauls, black DanElectros for slide, and even a cherry red Gibson double-neck 6- and 12-string electric. His Marshall cabinet was complete with Page’s Zoso logo. He even had a violin bow and theremin rig like the one Page used for dramatic effects. Wearing a long curly wig, he had all the moves, flair, riffs, chops, and equipment to pull it off. In fact, his sound was a actually a bit more polished than Page’s was over 20 years ago. Since Led Zeppelin was a live jam band as much as anything else, improvising was a big part of the Pier show. Steve Z incorporated his own facility into Page’s style to include all the signature hooks and sounds, but made the matrix in his solos his own, and it served to advance the performance. He portrayed Jimmy Page as well as anyone could hope to.
No tribute band stands a chance of being convincing without a commanding and believable front man. Led Zepagain had this presence with Montgomery as Plant. Dressed in the iconic open gypsy cloth shirt, hip hugging jeans, and blond hair, he had all the physical nuances of RP down pat. Swan’s voice was strongest in the high registers, where Plant was unequalled in his time. Although it was a bit thin in the lower registers, he compensated with a fine and authentic delivery.
Listening to the Led Zepagain rhythm section drove home how skilled the band is and just how magnificent but challenging the original songs can be to play. Songs like “In My Time of Dying” featured slamming syncopated turnarounds and a demanding interplay between the bass and drums. John Paul Jones and John Henry Bonham were as dynamic a rhythm section as there’s ever been in rock and roll. And Jim Wootten as bassist Jones and Jim Kersey as drummer Bonham gave us a potent reminder of what a special engine powered Led Zeppelin. They played the songs impressively from the inside out, performing all this thunder on a sunburst Fender Jazz Bass and an amber plexiglass Ludwig drum kit, just like Jones and Bonham
Because a tribute band must think comprehensively, the Led Zepagain set list was more interesting than the Zeppelin set list often was. Songs like “Ramble On,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Good Times, Bad Times” made it into the show. And the performance also included an acoustic section where Wootten switched to mandolin on “Going to California,” which went over famously on the Santa Monica Pier. No wonder Led Zepagain was received so famously. From 100 yards away in the ocean night, they might as well have been Led Zeppelin.
Abbey Road opened the show as the sun went down, and proceeded to present every detail of an early Beatlemania, vintage Beatles concert (save for the screaming that eventually made the band stop gigging) with fine results. In tightly tailored matching black suits, Cuban heeled boots, with unexaggerated Liverpool accents, and three of four members in mop top wigs, the lads cut quite a convincing profile onstage. “Ringo” (David Byers) had his vocal mic hanging from the boom in authentic fashion. “Paul” (John Gilbert) was left-handed, and played a Hofner violin bass. “George” (Rick Valente) had a hollow body Gretsch, and “John” (Scott Krejci) had a small scale black Rickenbacker – all of it just like the Beatles.
They played through Vox amps as the Beatles did and all the guys in the band had the physiques, postures, gestures, and nuances of their characters down perfectly. Playing a song selection culled mostly from the Meet The Beatles and Beatles ’65 albums, the harmonies, arrangements and playing were tantalizingly close to spot on, with Valente, as George offering a wonderfully authentic version of “This Boy.” (At one point, I overheard a fellow in the audience tell his girlfriend that they should have played a D minor chord instead of a D7. Perhaps… )
Thursday night’s show illustrated that the actual concept of a tribute band, as authentic and noble as it may be, is one step removed from reality. The tribute will always be bound by comparison to the original. Abbey Road, acting out the Beatles’ live act, had to have every detail perfectly locked in place, since the Beatles didn’t improvise much when playing live. Led Zepagain had the opportunity to establish the Led Zep sound and then run with it freely, as LZ used to do. At a certain point it all really can become like splitting hairs. But for this performance, both bands performed like champions — a great night in the rock and roll time machine.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click here.