Just after 7:30 p.m., Jason Bonham and his band took the stage at the Verizon to a standing ovation. As with most bands that I review, I had done little to no research on Bonham's act and was expecting to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band similar to Celebration Day. Thankfully, this was not the case.
Immediately upon arrival the band ripped into "Rock and Roll," which got me pumped and interested in seeing the rest of the set. This was very disconcerting to me, as that song holds a special place in the blackest recesses of my heart as the Led Zeppelin tune I hate the most.
The rest of the set was just as impressive, with the band tearing through a nice mix of the best known Zeppelin rockers and ballads without trying to sound like a note-for-note copy of one of rock's biggest icons. As Bonham explained during the set, the act wasn't meant as a tribute. It was meant as homage, as his way of letting the world know what he thought of his father.
Guitarist Tony Catania made for a great Jimmy Page replacement, although there were two issues that impacted his performance. The first is that there was virtually no treble coming out of his guitar, so most of the classic Page solos were lost in the rhythm section. This was especially disappointing when he started into the opening riff of "Over the Hills and Far Away," one of my favorite Zeppelin tracks, and half of the notes weren't there.
The second issue is just me being nit-picky, but his playing wasn't sloppy enough to be true Jimmy Page fretwork. This is usually where Zeppelin fans start towards me with broken bottles, but let me explain. Jimmy Page is a fantastic guitarist. Back in Zeppelin's heyday, he was loud, brash, and full of energy. He was not technically precise. Page at his best was like Evel Knievel heading toward Snake River Canyon with a stuck throttle and no brakes. Catania's performance was spot-on, but it was not as daredevil as Page.
Vocalist James Dylan is most likely the best Robert Plant replacement on the planet. His vocals were more Plant than Robert has been since Zeppelin ended in 1980. Dylan's range is perfectly suited for the tunes and his vocal phrasing mimics Plant at his finest. His performance was not a replica of Zeppelin's past performances, but every sound that exited his throat sounded like something you'd have heard coming off the stage in 1973.
Bassist Dorian Heartsong filled the John Paul Jones role perfectly, keeping a rock solid low-end without being flashy. Also putting in a great performance was Gary Hood, the band's tour manager, who absolutely wailed on the harp during their rendition of "When the Levee Breaks."
Bonham himself put on a great performance as well, keeping a steady beat and telling stories between songs. I feel that I should offer an apology to Mr. Bonham. Last week I was having a conversation with a friend about the upcoming show and made the comment that he was "riding his father's coattails" in order to make a few bucks. After hearing him talk about his dad and tell a few stories between songs, I know that my comment couldn't be further from the truth. He's one of those people that you know from the inflection in his voice that he's 100% honest and as humble as they come. His set was indeed a message of thanks to his dad, not a chance to cash in on his legacy.
There was one thing I found disconcerting about the Led Zeppelin Experience as a whole, and that was simply that the band looked nothing like Led Zeppelin. As I said earlier, I was expecting a Celebration Day-style tribute act, not a reinterpretation of classic tunes. When the band came out on stage, they looked like a pack of nu-metal aficionados.
Dylan has a shaved head, not Plant's flowing locks. Catania looks more like Slash than Page. However, the sounds they threw out were on point. It reminded me of a time back in the early '90s when I saw Rage Against the Machine tribute Renegades of Funk play at Pop's in Sauget. I was astounded when the band started to play and I heard Zack de la Rocha's voice come out of a chubby white guy. There's a lot more criticism involved when reviewing an act dressed in the role of a band and playing those songs than there is watching a band covering other people's songs.
After a break to allow the crew to set the stage, the members of Heart took to their stations. I knew this was going to be a good set the second Nancy Wilson broke the silence by chugging out the opening riff to "Barracuda," the best song Led Zeppelin never wrote.
Nancy spent the entire set grinding out heavy riffs and picking intricate acoustic pieces, grinning from ear to ear and dancing around the stage the entire time. I don't think she played the same guitar for more than one song in a row. Her guitar tech looked like a ball boy at a tennis match, running out to hand her a Gibson Nighthawk or a Fender Telecaster when she wasn't playing her acoustic or an octave mandolin. After seeing her play in person, I'd be willing to put money on her rhythm playing against just about anyone else out there. Her vocal ability is overshadowed by her sister Ann, but she displayed remarkable talent covering Elton John's "I Need You to Turn to" as a solo with her acoustic and performing the lead vocals for "These Dreams" with the rest of the band.
Ann Wilson really needs no introduction. If you listened to rock stations in the '70s or Top 40 radio in the '80s and beyond, you're bound to recognize that golden voice the second it hits your ears. She hasn't lost an ounce of the power she's known for and could have probably been heard over the band without any amplification at all.
The rest of the band are all relatively new, drummer Ben Smith joined the sisters in 1995, guitarist Craig Bartock and keyboardist Debbie Shair were added in 2004 and Dan Rothchild brought his bass on board in 2012. All of them sound like they've been playing together since the beginning.
Heart has had a long and storied career, changing from the hard rock and folk rock of the early '70s to the power ballads of the '80s and back again. The band made a stop at every point during the set, switching between the hard rock of "Heartless" and "Crazy on You" and '80s power ballads of "Alone" and "What About Love" without a hiccup.
Heart had more than a handful of folk rock tunes scattered among their hard rock gems of the '70s, two of which appeared during the show. "Mistral Wind" is probably the best known of the bunch, a longish piece that starts with an off-kilter acoustic guitar and winds its way into a more familiar rock setting and "Dog and Butterfly," which my friend Stephanie, who is the biggest Nancy Wilson fan I know, called "awful" and said "sounds like it belongs in a tampon commercial."
Heart ended their set with "Crazy on You," complete with the extended Nancy Wilson acoustic guitar solo piece that is often skipped when I hear it on the radio and exited the stage without a word. The house lights dropped and the stage crew went to work making some adjustments for the encore.
After a short delay, Ann and Nancy came out to the front of the stage and performed a cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore," a song they released as the Lovemongers for the "Singles" movie soundtrack, with Ben Smith on the drums. Smith departed the stage upon completion of the tune while Jason Bonham and Tony Catania joined the rest of Heart to finish the encore.
Said encore consisted of a 30-minute run of Led Zeppelin tunes, including one of the best renditions of "Immigrant Song" I've ever heard. Their version of "The Rain Song" was just as beautiful as the original, and "Kashmir" was as loud and lush as Page and Plant at their best. I was surprised at exactly how well Ann Wilson pulled off the vocals. She had Plant's timing and vocal inflections down pat.
The last song of the show was a recreation of their 2012 Kennedy Center Honors performance of "Stairway to Heaven" that's been floating around YouTube. Their performance of this classic, complete with gospel choir, moved much of the crowd to tears. It was the perfect end to a night of classic tunes.
Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience set list:
Rock and Roll
Over the Hills and Far Away
What is and What Should Never Be
Nobody's Fault but Mine
When the Levee Breaks
Whole Lotta Love
Heart set list:
What About Love
Kick It Out
Even it Up
Dog and Butterfly
I Need You to Turn to (Elton John cover)
Dear Old America
Crazy On You
Battle of Evermore
Last five songs with Jason Bonham and Tony Catania:
Misty Mountain Hop
The Rain Song
Stairway to Heaven