Friday, December 12, 2008

Classic Albums Live conquers 'Houses of the Holy' with Steve 'The Lemon' Sauer on keys

Some last-minute scurrying to figure out a way to get myself to play the keyboard parts of Led Zeppelin's pivotal album Houses of the Holy, and a few other songs we included as encores, paid off. Yesterday was a wonderful day, meeting some very talented and very professional musicians and having the immediate chance to play a proper show with them to an attentive audience.

Now I just have to keep the momentum from that initial experience alive for another week and two nights for the five remaining performances on our schedule. Classic Albums Live tackles the fifth Zeppelin album in its entirety again tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. and then again next week with the same schedule (Thursday, Dec. 18 at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Dec. 19-20 at 9 p.m.) on the stage of Paradise Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.

The only band member I knew at all before yesterday was Nick Hildyard, who executed lead vocal duties for Classic Albums Live last month when I saw and reported on their handling of Led Zeppelin's 40-year-old debut album, note for note, cut for cut. And I knew him only because after he read my critical analysis of their performance, he contacted me, figuring I have a pretty good ear and must be a musician. When I told him I was indeed a keyboardist, the first thing he did was rejoice at having discovered another local keyboardist.

Then, without hesitation, Nick invited me to try my hand at Houses of the Holy, which I of course jumped at. For one thing, I'd just moved down to South Florida, and all the musicians I knew were still 1,000 miles north of me. An opportunity not only to get onstage again but to play a better gig than I'd eve had before? Sure, it was going to take some work to ready myself, but it was a challenge I would have been foolish to turn down.

Nick and I got together a couple times between early November and yesterday, and he also often checked in on my progress by e-mail while he was off flying around to distant Classic Albums Live shows in Canada and the United States. Busy guy, but accommodating and also pretty relaxed. I told him I was worried about some keyboard sounds not being totally accurate, but he said not to worry. He lent me a midi console with hundreds of instrument sounds on it.

Unfortunately for me, I never was able to practice with that console on my own because it was incompatible with my primitive keyboard equipment at home! In fact, we discarded my keyboard altogether yesterday because of its limitations. We were at a professional gig, so we were going to use only professional equipment. Nick provided me with some good stuff, and I took some time onstage at our afternoon onstage setup sorting out what sounds would be good for what songs and making copious notes to boot. Now I was starting to sound like the John Paul Jones Orchestra.

As I auditioned this plethora of sounds in my headphones, most of the rest of the group rolled in straight from the airport, where they'd just flown in from Toronto, home of a six-night stint playing nothing but AC/DC's Back in Black. They were jet-lagged and complaining of ringing in their ears and admittedly in need of showers, but it was time to get themselves musically ready first. I was told that we were on an accelerated rehearsal schedule because normally we meet each other a day in advance of our first show rather than the day of it. That wasn't possible this time, so we wouldn't be able to run through everything before showtime. I don't think anybody wanted to anyway.

These guys were getting in, and I shied away from interacting with them except just to introduce myself by name and say it was good to be making my Classic Albums Live premiere with him. I honestly expected them to be inaccessible and arrogant, but no: They were as friendly as Barney the Purple Dinosaur and as neighborly as Fred Rogers. Then, when they heard me play, they were as complimentary of me as my mom!

In Classic Albums Live, these performers don't specialize in any one particular group. They're jacks of all trades. The seasoned veterans have each played dozens of different albums by a wide variety of artists. One Houses of the Holy guitarist, Tom Mcdermott, was pretty new to the thing but already had performed albums by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. But they are as competent and fluent in Led Zeppelin's music as any Zep tribute band member I've ever encountered. This made it as awesome to talk with them as it was to play with them.

Of course, I don't think they were expecting to hear that this unknown 29-year-old keyboardist had interviewed John Paul Jones seven years ago, almost to the day. Our bass player, Johnny B., was tickled to find out from me that he's not the only bass player in the world who likes to stay close to the drums when performing live; Jones says the others in Zeppelin would encourage him to play at the front of the stage but he would find himself drifting back toward Bonzo's kit within a song or two.

In the case of our drummer, Rick Vatour, it's with good reason. He and Johnny B. play off of each other unbelievably well. They possess the same chemistry that Jones and John Bonham did, and that Jones evidently has rediscovered with Jason Bonham for quite some time. Johnny and Rick form a tight rhythm section, one that really can't be described as tight but loose like Led Zeppelin's was. This is only by virtue of the fact that Classic Albums Live reproduces with precision the run-through of every song as it was laid down in the winning take in the studio. They aren't improvising; they're faithfully reciting the improvisation that was rendered on tape and played back on home stereo systems and on radio stations billions of times through the ages.

At the show last night, I sat onstage, unoccupied at two keyboards that were useless to me for seven minutes or so, while the band around me ran through an encore version of "Dazed and Confused" when it occurred to me, during Dom Polito's violin bow section with vocal responses, that the real action was happening on the bass and drums. These two guys were essentially playing a duet with each other, not taking their eyes off of each other. They had it all meticulously written out for them in their minds and memories, and the playbook was 40 years old. It was incredible to see, and I look forward to seeing that again soon.

The show wasn't without its gaffes, the majority of which can be blamed on the rookie on the keys. They were things I recognized right away and did what I could to correct them or file them away for future reference. A few notes into my "No Quarter" introduction, I recognized that I didn't have the phase filter on my Rhodes piano sound, but fixing that was just a quick switch away. I inserted one clavinet phrase too late at the ending of "Over the Hills and Far Away," but I won't make the same mistake tonight.

And I committed a song structure error during "Kashmir" that also used to trip up John Paul Jones during live performances to the point that he would have to refer to his own handwritten notes about the song structure at his keyboard to help him from getting off track. Perhaps that's good advice for me too!

I went over some of these blunders with my bandmates after the show, but they were more interested in congratulating me on doing certain things that I did that most keyboardists they've worked with don't. For one, Johnny B. said I was correct in playing low notes on the Rhodes piano sound during the verses of "Stairway to Heaven." He said most keyboardists wrongly believe that's a bass on the record, and he said he was surprised to have finally found a keyboardist who agrees with him that there's no bass in the song until the third verse after the 12-string and Rhodes enter.

Meanwhile, the only constructive criticism I received from Classic Albums Live founder Craig Martin wasn't musical at all. It was on my wardrobe! I shouldn't have exposed the Foo Fighters T-shirt I was wearing underneath my button-down, and socks and shoes should have replaced my flip flops. (Hey, the guy's Canadian, not Floridian, so I'll give him a break!) But Craig did tell me that I had "big eyes and big ears." By this, he meant I was capable of following the other musicians' lead, being ready to interpret musical cues whether by listening or keeping my head up, and blending in accordingly. Craig said, "That's what it's all about." Yes, it is.

And that's something I've been trying to convey to all my bandmates throughout my years of playing. It's the ability that made Led Zeppelin a band of such great performers, and it's what kept them together all the years they were. It's probably what Jimmy Page is experiencing with the Jones-Bonham rhythm section of the 21st century and is drawing that trio back to wanting to work together again, whether or not they're joined by Robert Plant. It's a good thing that magic was there for Tom Mcdermott and me as we worked with the polished band of Nick Hildyard, Dom Polito, Johnny B. and Rick Vatour for the first time. Since our rehearsal time was so limited, it was excellent to go out onstage at showtime and be able to present our magic act to "The Ocean" that had gathered to witness it.

Update: This thread on the Classic Albums Live message board is dedicated to the show from Thursday, Dec. 11.

Second update: I added a YouTube video above of about a minute from our performance of "The Rain Song" on our final night, Saturday, Dec. 20.


  1. Congrats on landing this gig. I just saw C.A.L. doing AC/DC here in Toronto. They were terrific, even with their lead singer battling bronchitis. He did an admirable job. How did you land such a fabulous gig? Looking forward to following your progress.

  2. Congratulations, Steve! That must have been a ton of fun for you to do (and also a lot of work, by the sounds of it!), and it seems like you'll get more opportunities to do it again.

  3. Congratulations, man. "They were as complimentary of me as my mom"(LOL). I can only imagine how stressful it must have been to play with a tight band like that, and all the more so because it's a very faithful rendition of the original. I didn't know about these guys until I read about them here a few weeks ago. Anyhow, living in the Sunshine State and performing Zeppelin songs with these guys,I mean, life doesn't get much better than that.

  4. Must be nice to own your own blog and blow smoke up your own butt.
    Maybe you and Robert should get together.



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