Friday, April 25, 2003

Zepfest 2003: What was and what we're glad wasn't meant to be

This news originally appeared in an edition of the newsletter "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History."

"It's always something, isn't it?" Grant Burgess snickered on Friday, April 11, just after I arrived for the inaugural event of Zepfest 2003. Grant could easily go on for hours listing the many occurrences that have threatened the existence of his (mostly) annual get-together. "This year, it's the SARS, and I guess some people had to cancel because they were a little uneasy about coming to Toronto."

News of the Serious Acute Respiratory Syndrome and a few cases in Toronto were common knowledge to a good percentage of attendees before they flew in or drove up to Toronto for the Led Zeppelin convention. Nevertheless, those who'd been at previous years' shows commented that attendance did not seem to be down in any way. By the end of the weekend, there was most likely nobody unfamiliar with SARS, thanks to the ingenious idea of one exhibitor to hand out specially designed Zepfest 2003 surgical masks to those making a purchase. Because it seems nobody was infected with SARS that weekend, this gag gift will go down in history as a sign of what we're glad wasn't meant to be.

Speaking of gag gifts, the Zepfest 2003 mug actually says "Zepfest 2002" on it. Some attendees commented that it's rather fitting. As Led Zeppelin fans, they're well aware that even the band had a hard time getting certain things right at the printers. That's something we've seen many times over, particularly with album covers. Most recently, a mailing list at sends an automatic response in which the band's name is spelled incorrectly. So, the misprinted mugs could become more of a collector's item someday.

On to the events: Zepfest kicked off with drinks at Healey's. Before the main act took center stage, fans were treated to bootleg video of Led Zeppelin's filmed Seattle 1977 performance; new bootleg releases of this video shown at Zepfest blow away versions previously seen in the black market. Spectacular versions of "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Achilles Last Stand" set the tone for the evening's main act, Canada's Led Zeppelin tribute band Zeppelinesque.

Four band members took the stage: one gorgeous female bassist, one drummer, and two guitarists! Nobody was standing in front of the center microphone, and so ensued shouts of "We need a singer!" A tall, lanky man with a straggly wig and an open shirt pushed his way through the ocean of people and took the stage to much laughter and cheers. He knocked over at least one beer on the way to the stage, for which he publicly apologized after finishing a song.

The singer had a small arsenal of Robert Plant's moves at his disposal, but the people around me agreed with my comment that his voice was less like Plant's and more like that of Geddy Lee, lead singer of Canada's own Rush. After I made the comment, it became tougher for my friends to listen to these versions of Physical Graffiti tracks when you're expecting to hear the singer bust into "Fly by Night."

The rest of the band was great: right on with arrangements of Led Zeppelin's studio catalogue. Zeppelinesque played a few songs that you'd be hard-pressed to find on a greatest hits album or in any Led Zep set list. Each rarity made the crowd go wild, but the highlight of the first set was probably a version of "Dazed and Confused" based on the six-and-a-half-minute version that graces the first side of Zep's debut album. The group's lead guitarist played a violin bow solo but chose to keep things going and not to indulge too much.

On the following day, the commercial exposition at Healey's and a post-convention reception were supported by more video screenings of our favorite band in action. Some recent footage of Robert Plant's Strange Sensation also received some play and appreciation among gawking fans.

For me, the best part of the convention was meeting people and being able to discuss how checking out our heroes' favorite music has affected us. There were people, like me, who rediscovered the music of groups like Love and Moby Grape just because Robert Plant has dropped their names in many interviews between the 1960s and today. It's rare that in my personal life I can find fellow fans to sit down with and discuss a rare B-side or particular live version. That's why these get-togethers are so special.

Even more of a trip was meeting people who didn't recognize the name Steve "The Lemon" when I introduced myself and couldn't say they recalled ever reading "On This Day In Led Zeppelin History." But when they found out about the four-hour interview I conducted with John Paul Jones a few years back, they enthusiastically listened to me recanting the words he told me and the impressions he gave me. One tidbit about the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reunion I haven't seen repeated elsewhere is mentioned on page 129 of Q magazine's special issue devoted to Led Zeppelin.

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