Thursday, February 12, 2004

Led Zepland, you got the chops

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

One of Jimmy Page's first actions after turning 60 years old last month was to sit in an audience to see a replica of his younger self in action. The news that Page went to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band came to me during a recent visit to TBL/Web.

A link from that site took me to a group photo with their special guest. At right, the group's drummer has the look to play John Bonham. At left, the group's John Paul Jones reminds me more of Mick Fleetwood. And in the center, the real Page wraps his arms around the two others -- the singer, an accurate Robert Plant look-alike from Ireland, and the guitarist. Aside from the black dragon outfit that clearly screams out Page, I'd say this guy resembles the offspring of Queen guitarist Brian May and saxophonist Kenny G. Led Zepagain is a hodgepodge from a visual standpoint, but Jimmy was reportedly impressed with the music in their backstage meet that night.

Upon learning of Page's guilty pleasures, I thought to myself: If a man of Jimmy's wise, old age is "Going to California" (pardon the pun) to watch a Led Zeppelin tribute band, then why shouldn't Steve "The Lemon" Sauer have a similar experience? I was flying to Orange County on business in a few days, and I'd heard of another tribute band in the area that had a buzz following it, Led Zepland. I decided that while I was in the area, I'd check out the tribute action to see what the hubbub was all about.

A few days in advance, I told guitarist Gary "London" Lohre that I was on my way. Now, truly, I know I am just a news reporter and student of journalism who honed his skills early with a specialized newsletter dedicated to Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham. I'm no god. I'm not even Cameron Crowe. But for some reason, when I met Gary and the rest of the band, I received celebrity treatment. The drummer offered to be my chauffeur, just like Bonham who offered to be Led Zeppelin's official driver for a few extra quid. The tribute band took me out with them between sets to a pub down the street, and the drinks were on them.

All four guys were eager to know how I thought they measured up, and I was happy to report to each one: "You got the chops." This was especially welcome news for vocalist Shawn Kelly, a tall specimen with all of Plant's classic onstage moves in full effect. As Shawn downed a single shot of J├Ągermeister next to me, he said it was one of a few good treatments he knew to keep his high voice in shape for the second set. (I was quizzed as to what happened on that late January day in Led Zeppelin history; I said I didn't remember exactly but was pretty sure every day that week had something to do with Plant getting the flu, sounding awful and canceling some tour dates.) We discussed Plant's Achilles heel, so to speak, which was belting out high-intensity, high-range chestnuts night after night for years straight. Shawn assured me he knew how to save himself from the fate Plant suffered in the mid '70s when his voice could no longer match that of earlier in the decade.

Two seats from me, drummer Scott Misner was also pleased to learn I was impressed by his playing. (Or was he more relieved than pleased?) Although a veteran drummer, as the newest member of Led Zepland, he said he was just starting to gel with the band. Scott also told me it was the first time he was in a band where he'd have to specialize in playing the licks of one particular drummer. It sounded to me as if he'd been playing that way his whole life. Scott said his pre-school-aged daughter already has a mini drum set and would hopefully learn from her father. Yes, he knew that's what John Bonham did for his son Jason by bestowing upon the boy a scaled-down version of his own kit.

Out and about elsewhere, the bass and keyboards player came by the pub for a drink and then probably spent the rest of the 15- minute break scouting for another party, or for his beloved lady. How eerily it was like John Paul Jones had told me in Philadelphia back in 2001: He partied just as much as the other guys in the group, but the reason he wasn't spotted as much was because he'd be off somewhere else doing the partying. I suppose that's what the story is with John Baxter, a multi-instrumentalist who later that night showed himself versatile enough to play bass on "Thank You" for the first time ever, allowing yours truly to edge in on one of his two Kawai keyboards.

If I were limited to naming one musical highlight of the evening, doing so would be neglecting dozens of moments that, to me as a Led Zeppelin fan, were indispensable. As I said, they all have the chops. Recalling each individual, I can think of at least one personal highlight: John Baxter's nimble bass playing on "What Is and What Should Never Be," Shawn Kelly's groovy Valhalla wail and tambourine shaking on "Immigrant Song," and Scott Misner's impromptu drum solo bridge connecting "How Many More Times" into "Out on the Tiles" just before the end of the first set.

For me, the real treat was seen standing on stage left, dressed in a black shirt with yellow stars alongside the collar, and playing a guitar. Man, does Gary "London" Lohre ever have the chops! He clearly demonstrated this over and over that night, but especially during a vicious run-through of "Dazed and Confused" for which he played the second half with a broken string dangling from his ax. Gary also treated us to a markedly crowd-pleasing "Heartbreaker" solo. The guy's amazing.

After an encore, the band members disappeared and then quickly reassembled in their street clothes, without their wigs and gimmicks to make them appear the part. The only ones I could easily recognize was Shawn, who really is a smiling, tall blond guy in his natural state, and Gary, who makes no apologies for not looking like the guitar hero, standing at a monstrous height with blond hair hanging below his shoulders. John and Scott, though, would be hard to pick in a lineup.

On the way home, chauffeur Scott told me he's already ordered a custom Bonham mustache made by a former FBI employee who'd worked in making false facial hair and wardrobes for undercover agents. Plus, the band has been working on adding some new material to the set lists -- that is, "new" as in "When the Levee Breaks" and a few others from the Zeppelin catalog. After all these years, it looks like the boys truly were right: "The Song Remains the Same." Visit Led Zepland, the ultimate tribute, on the Web here.