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Lez Zeppelin puts a twist on Page, Plant & company

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
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For two and half years, Sarah McLellan has immersed herself in Led Zeppelin. She studies videos and listens to bootlegged concerts; when the Led Zeppelin DVD set was released, she says she spent six to seven hours a day absorbing the vintage performance clips and interviews on the two discs. She is interested in not only the music, but in the personalities of the members of the band as well.The reason behind the crash course is that McLellan has been playing the role of Led Zep lead singer Robert Plant for the past two and a half years. Since mid-2006, McLellan has been a member of Lez Zeppelin, a New York-based, all-female band that pays tribute to the gods of blues-metal. Which means that, in addition to studying Led Zeppelin, the 25-year-old Australian native spends many of her nights thrashing out such no-holds-barred rockers as Dazed and Confused, Whole Lotta Love and Rock n Roll. (But never Stairway to Heaven: Its a combination of being sacred and completely overdone, says McLellan.) After a good two hours of belting out some of the most aggressive songs known to rock, McLellan likes to wind down with … a little more Zep.We still, all of us, listen to Zeppelin, said McLellan, including in the observation her bandmates, drummer Helen Destroy and bassist Lisa Brigantino, as well as guitarist Steph Paynes, who founded the band a year before McLellan joined up. On the bus, after a show, at least a couple of us are listening to Zeppelin.There are cover bands who take the best-known songs of their favorite group and replicate them onstage for fans who may never have had the chance to see the original. They may even get into character, dressing the part. And then there are bands that go steps beyond. Dark Star Orchestra built its reputation by taking past Grateful Dead shows and duplicating them song by song, jam by jam, changing up instruments and even band members depending on the era of the show. Australian Floyd, a Pink Floyd tribute act, has landed arena gigs by employing the lasers and other visual elements common to a Pink Floyd show.Lez Zeppelin has focused on the music itself. Hence, the need for McLellans obsessive devotion. She finds Led Zeppelins music complex, ambitious and multifaceted enough to warrant her years-long course of study.Theres so much in this music to discover and rediscover, said McLellan, who performs with the band on Sunday, March 16, at Belly Up. Led Zeppelin is such intense and complex music.

Tribute band, or not?McLellan says that Lez Zeppelin was not born from a desire to give Led Zeppelin fans an experience that they havent had in some three decades namely, hearing the songs played live. When Steph formed this, is wasnt her intention to form a tribute band, said McLellan. It was just rediscovering her love for Led Zeppelin, that time when she was sitting in her living room, wanting to be Jimmy Page. She was thinking, If I could be in any band in the world, what would it be?If the members of Lez Zeppelin had a burning desire to re-create Led Zeppelin, it didnt show in their previous job choices. Paynes, the guitarist with the Jimmy Page infatuation, was performing with singer Ronnie Spector, of the all-girl group the Ronettes. McLellan had been on Broadway, in 42nd Street, and in the Vegas show We Will Rock You, built from the songs of Queen. Destroy, the drummer, had played original hard rock in the girl group the Lunachicks. Brigantino was a folky singer-songwriter with a masters in composition the genius we look to for help, for her talent, said McLellan.Those varied backgrounds have been a key to establishing Lez Zeppelin as one of the premiere acts in the crowded pool of tribute bands.Jimmy Page spoke about that in the press how Led Zeppelin had individual talents that they brought into the band, which gave them a fifth element, said McLellan. And we have that rare thing. With so many different genres, it takes a lot to play it well. The varied experiences have allowed us to put different things into the project.Perhaps the most significant element of Lez Zeppelin is a simple accident of biology. Thanks to their gender, the members of Lez Zeppelin dont look like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and the late John Bonham, and, especially in the case of McLellan, cant sound like the original. They have used that essential difference to their advantage. On one level, it is a gimmick a bunch of women stepping into the roles of one of the most macho, sexually suggestive rock bands. (It is a gimmick shared by Hells Belles, an all-female AC/DC tribute act.)But McLellan says that, on a more significant level, Lez Zeppelin starts with the gender difference to take musical liberties with the Led Zep sound. Instead of aping the original, they seek to interpret it in a unique fashion.Were freed by the whole gender issue, she said. Im not trying to look like Robert Plant; Steph isnt trying to play what Jimmy Page played. Were freed by the fact that were women. Im most free to give it my own flair. Im physically not going to sound like Robert Plant no matter how hard I try.Its different and people have accepted that and embraced it. It excites people, because its completely new. In this genre, there havent been a lot of all-women bands.On the other side, Lez Zeppelin seeks to maintain the integrity of the music which in this case means playing the role of a traditional tribute band, and delivering the hits in recognizable fashion. (For an alternate take on the Led Zeppelin repertoire, try Dread Zeppelin, whose singer, an Elvis impersonator, leads the band in reggae versions of Zep songs.) Lez Zeppelin focuses on the first six Zeppelin albums, covering the 1969 eponymous debut through 1975s Physical Graffiti the glory years, in other words, passing over the latter-era, relative duds, Presence and In Through the Out Door.Were not trying to change it, said McLellan. We want the same power, the same sexuality, the same intensity that Led Zeppelin had in the 70s. But were not playing note for note, inflection for inflection. Its on another level. We think about what they would have played, what they could have played, if they got out there in 76, 77. Its not like a tribute band trying to make you believe they really are the band.Breaking down barriersIn fact, Lez Zeppelin has been, sort of, mistaken for their forerunners. In December, it was reported that Led Zeppelin would make an appearance at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee this coming June. It wasnt all that far-fetched a notion; Led Zeppelins three surviving members had performed, for the first time in 12 years, at a memorial concert in London for Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun. The reviews were rapturous.What was hard to believe is that the press release on which the report was based would bury such news a few paragraphs down. The real scoop was that Lez Zeppelin would be appearing at the massive festival.The actual version of events was fairly notable in itself. Tribute bands are a far more common sight in small clubs than they are at prominent festivals. But Lez Zep has become accustomed to breaking down barriers. Last summer, they played the hard rock-oriented Download Festival, becoming the first tribute act to appear at the gathering outside London. They were the first tribute act to play the Voodoo Festival in New Orleans. They have a show coming up at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza, one of New York Citys most prominent venues.More impressive is the company that has supported their endeavor. The bands self-titled album, released last year, was produced by Eddie Kramer known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, Kiss and, yes, Led Zeppelin. It was mastered by George Marino, who has mastered reissues by the original Zeppelin.To be surrounded by these people, to have them help to re-create the material and give a rebirth to it with the original people thats not something tribute bands have done in the past.All of the members of Lez Zeppelin have been involved in past projects that focused on playing and recording original music. McLellan, for one, doesnt see covering another bands music as a retreat from true creativity. At least, not when the band in question is Led Zeppelin, and not when such energy is put into the covering.Were not playing music thats devoid of any complexity and intensity, she said. The idea of a Led Zeppelin cover band is cringe-worthy, actually. You hear all girls playing Zeppelin, and you think, Uuggh. People always tell us they come to see us for a laugh. And then they tell us they were in tears when we played Since Ive Been Loving You.McLellan has come to feel a sense of ownership over the music.There is so much freedom and room for improvisation in this and letting our own thing come into it its that special. It almost feels like our music in a way, she said. Weve always said we wouldnt be able to do this with any other band.stewart@aspentimes.com

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