By Mike Finkelstein
Los Angeles, CA. Last Friday night at the Greek Theatre, Heart and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience shared the bill and the stage with the looming presence of Led Zeppelin in absentia. There actually were more Led Zeppelin songs played this evening than those of anyone else. Friday’s show saw Heart do their crunching melodic ’70’s tunes, the power ballads of the mid ’80’s, and then tighten up their Led Zep connection with John Bonham’s son Jason.
Heart’s two remaining original members are the talented and charismatic Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy Wilson. In the mid/early 70’s the Wilsons helped form Heart and developed a unique, attractive sound that combined folk harmonies, melodies, and instrumentation with heavy power chording and nifty riffing. They also developed a strong visual esthetic revolving around the roving gypsy notion of touring rock musicians (Little Queen). The fact that the Wilson sisters were romantically entwined with their fellow band mates only added to the effect.
Folk music and blues/rock proved to be a mere entry point for what would follow in Zeppelin’s career. It’s also no secret that the Wilson sisters and many other developing musical minds of that period revered and studied Led Zeppelin’s combination of different styles with magical results.
Fusing folk and heavy rock, Heart hit it big in 1976. They became rock icons, mainstays at the top of the charts and people knew their albums inside out for the remainder of the decade. On Friday night they trotted out the hits in their rock ‘n’ roll glory. “Magic Man,” “Even It Up,” “Barracuda,” “Kick It Out,” all satisfied the crowd mightily. And they should. These are songs that featured the pretty ladies rocking as hard and writing as well as the very talented dudes in the band. When Heart released a new single you just knew there were going to be several guitar breaks worth sitting down to learn and perk up for when it came onto the radio.
On Friday, at age 59, Nancy Wilson still riffed, swayed, kicked, and rocked like the true lil’ rocker she is. Perhaps the most compelling moments came when she played acoustic guitar. She gets a lot of cleanly articulated arpeggios out of her strumming and chord-wise, she was right there on songs like “Mistral Wind” and, particularly, on Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song.” “Crazy on You” was one of their very first hits and it started with a short but sweet montage of acoustic guitar styling from Nancy Wilson. She gave us what we were waiting for and some extra on that intro. Including Elton John’s tender ballad “I Need You to Turn to,” was also a nice nod to the 70’s aesthetic.
Heart had a huge ’80’s rebirth as they pioneered the power ballad genre. Weepy, overblown, contrived, flashy, silly power ballads came to define a rather insipid chapter in the general decline of rock ‘n’ roll. Not long after power ballads had taken over the radio, Nirvana’s alternative Nevermind blew the doors off the scene. It was all over for the purveyors of power ballads.
On Friday, Heart’s power ballads were stripped of the over-the-top frills and recognizable as better songs than we tend to remember them. Ann Wilson’s voice carried these songs so impressively. Though I hate to admit it, I heard the angst and tension in songs like “What About Love,” and “Alone” much more clearly than years ago.
The most intriguing part of the evening centered around Jason Bonham joining Heart onstage for a Led Zeppelin mini-set encore. The Heart connection with Led Zeppelin began last year at the Kennedy Center Awards ceremony. At this event Heart played a transcendent version of “Stairway to Heaven,” one that Plant, Page, and Jones were seen to profoundly enjoy on YouTube. That is bona fide validation.
With Bonham, Heart covered a lot of different musical entries from the LZ catalogue. Beginning with one of the best covers you’ll ever hear of “Battle of Evermore,” the Wilson sisters on mandolin and guitar channeled Sandy Denny and Robert Plant simultaneously. Fantastic rendition. They brought out members of Bonham’s band for “The Song Remains the Same,” “The Immigrant Song(!)” “The Rain Song,” “Kashmir,” and of course “Stairway to Heaven.” Bonham played his dad’s parts effortlessly. He had all the bass heavy tone we were listening for and his combination of finesse and buff, wrist-rooted power drumming was impressive.
The Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience band walks a fine line between being a top-notch tribute band and keeping the family name alive. JB is known mostly for reproducing his dad’s style and sound. The JBLZE also feature two of the more impressive Zeppelin impersonators you will ever see.
Tony Catania had all the Jimmy Page LZ studio guitar sounds nailed on a cherry sunburst Les Paul and got them across intact to our ears in the open night air of the Greek. That’s an impressive feat. He wasn’t satisfied to just copy the studio solos and played around with the Page sound, which must be like getting the keys to a classic old muscle car with a full tank of gas.
James Dylan was right on the money with the Robert Plant parts. In particular, he not only hit the high, heavy parts but in songs like “What Is and What Should Never Be,” he actually did the soft nearly spoken parts sounding just like Plant. He had the whole spectrum of Plant’s voice down pat.
Still, all of this is what it is…yet another opportunity to vicariously revisit the Led Zeppelin legacy.
* * * * * * * *
To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.