“I can’t stand tribute bands. It’s nice, bless ’em, but it’s not right. They can’t capture the right spirit. You never see a tribute comedian, a tribute Les Dawson.”
Dave Davies, guitarist, The Kinks
Some say that imitation is the highest form of flattery and when it comes to tribute bands, I think there is a lot of truth in that proposition.
This is the first installment in our series dedicated to tribute acts; i.e., those artists who have painstakingly dedicated themselves to emulating an original and often well known act. First, however, as a caveat we all know that the tribute act is not a new concept and in fact many credit The Buggs (a 1960s Beatles tribute) as being the first “tribute” band circa mid-1960s. (One could also consider many of the Elvis impersonators–that also started around this same time period–as a form of tribute act). However, despite being around for a long time tribute acts, perhaps more now than ever, remain very viable for a variety of reasons that we will examine in this special feature.
Editor’s Note: Indeed, The Buggs actually released an album of Beatles covers in 1964.
Second, we recognize that the opinion of who or what is a great tribute act is susceptible to wide subjective interpretation. Therefore, recognize that we cannot feature every one of the major tribute acts that are out there and there are many of them and indeed, many are very good at what they do. Nevertheless, we have selected some of the more popular or particularly impressive tribute acts for this special feature.
For our first installment we went big with a California based Led Zeppelin tribute act known as Led Zepagain. Formed in 1988, Led Zepagain has been consistently excellent in bringing their interpretation of the Led Zeppelin experience to audiences around the world. Led Zeppelin is undoubtedly one of the harder bands to emulate from top to bottom and that is what drew our attention to Led Zepagain. The original historic quartet, which released their first album in 1969 (the same year that Woodstock took place), brought timeless and classic rock, raw talent, iconic looks, and unforgettable live performances with them. Therefore, anyone seeking to emulate Led Zeppelin is taking on a tall order. Furthermore, unlike some bands where a member or two may not be generally well known or be particularly influential (either musically or aesthetically), the four members of Led Zeppelin could not have been more antithetical to that premise; all four were stars and personalities in their own right.
Fronting Led Zepagain is Swan Montomery who plays the part of Robert Plant. Montgomery, who hails from Ireland, is the longest running member in the group and he most aptly fills the shoes of epic frontman Robert Plant. Swan, who has mastered one of the more difficult and recognizable voices in rock history, has left no detail to chance and fans as well as other artists have clearly noticed. Case in point was a onetime Roger Daltry invite to join The Who on stage. So, from the authentic clothes, to mannerisms, to phraseology, and even to imitating where Plant would stand on stage, Montgomery is very convincing as the original Honeydripper himself.
Playing the second most popular member of the group is Anthony David who performs the part of guitarsmith Jimmy Page. This Los Angeles native has been able to somehow capture and emulate Page’s sound as well as his altered tunings, string bending, bent vibrato (e.g., at 3:05 in Whole Lotta Love), and Page’s use of “B.B.’s Box,” like few others.
Editor’s Note: “B.B.’s Box” refers to a fretboard pattern (in honor of the legendary blues guitarist B.B. King) which is based around the index finger on the root note on the 2nd string and it facilitates the playing of major pentatonic, minor pentatonic and blues scale licks.
“I play like I play. You hear it on ‘Celebration Day.’ It’s pretty good for a one-night shot.” Jimmy Page
Even to the untrained ear, Page–although brilliant in technique and writing ability–had a tendency to sound less than precise when playing live. However, that style worked for Page and it made him a “live” legend of sorts because his feel was amazing and inescapable. Case in point is Page’s performance in The Song Remains The Same movie which Page himself even subtly panned in a 1976 interview following the film’s release. Nevertheless, emulating that “feel” is extremely difficult and David is one of the few guitarists that I have seen pull it off authentically. Frankly, there is no substitute, training, effect, or aid that can give a performer that feel and for that reason David gets very high marks.
Playing the legendary bassist John Paul Jones is Jim Wootten. Although the original was anything but flamboyant, JPJ filled an important void between the swoon of Plant, the flash of Page, and the thunder of Bonham. Wootten follows in his footsteps as he wonderfully portrays “Jonesy.” Emulating JPJ is not easy. Not only was Jones a fantastic bass player, he was also an underrated keyboardist who could create “mood” while also being an excellent writer and producer.
Editor’s Note: In fact, it was Jones–not Page–who came up with the 5/4 riff in Black Dog.
Clearly, playing Jones means that you play and act like him, something that Wootten has perfected as he has been performing with Led Zepagain as Jones since 2001. In fact, one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes is the live version of No Quarter and the band, led by Wootten on this one, renders as good a cover of the song that anyone can expect–the rendition is terrific.
Rounding out Led Zepagain is drummer Derek Smith. Emulating Bonham is akin to trying to control an earthquake. Putting aside the innovation that Bonzo brought to the instrument, he played in a controllably explosive manner, with over the top power and presence, all while maintaining impeccable feel. Arguably, Bonham–whose style and drum fills are easily recognizable by the masses–is one of the greatest drummers of all time.
Smith, when put to the test, handles the load quite nicely. Like Montgomery and David, he gets high marks for appearance as he sports the epic Vistalite kit that Bonzo used as well as other replica kits used during different time periods. Indeed, Smith really persuades in emulating Bonham’s appearance in the earlier years (i.e., up and to The Song Remains The Same), while also portraying Bonham later in his career (circa 1980). However, any emulator of Bonham will ultimately be held to a narrow but critical litmus test; can he pull off Moby Dick?
Here, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Not only does Smith have Bonham’s sound, his style seems naturally similar to Bonham’s which lends to a very realistic feel for the music. Smith is also authentic to the fills that Bonham played and many appear to be straight from the record or a live Led Zeppelin performance. I give Derek Smith a lot of credit for his rendition of John Bonham as there are many moving parts to emulating Bonham including the booming sound that Bonham produced. In my opinion Smith has all the bases covered and that, like with the original timekeeper, gave Plant and Page (here, Montgomery and David), the foundation that they needed to execute the music.
If you are wondering what fans of Led Zeppelin think of Led Zepagain, check out this video:
In the case of Led Zepagain, I think a tribute act works really well and the reason for that is because first, the rendition is very authentic. The band pays attention to every detail from wardrobe to sound and in the case of David (Jimmy Page) as well as Smith (John Bonham) they emulate a sound that is vintage and not contemporary which in my opinion, is very challenging. Second, for fans of Led Zeppelin like myself who never had the opportunity to see the band live Led Zepagain–along with a dose of imagination–allows one to get a glimpse of what the real deal must have been like.
Finally, I think Led Zepagain is a valuable and important form of entertainment and apparently Messrs. Plant and Page do too. In 2004 Jimmy Page himself saw the group and he apparently requested to meet the band after a pleasing performance. Led Zepagain perpetuates the Led Zeppelin experience as well as their music which is not only important for historical reasons but it also pays the proper tribute to a deserving artist. This is particularly true in a digital age where creativity and “feel” appear to be more and more absent and giving way to more automated forms of creation and performance. Led Zeppelin could not have been any further from such modern amenities like autotune.
Thus, whether you like Led Zeppelin or not that group holds an important place in the history and the development of our musical landscape and tribute acts like Led Zepagain serve an important role in continuing their “presence.” For these reasons we wanted to pay tribute to those who tribute the great ones and in the case of Led Zeppelin, Led Zepagain gets the job done and then some. Ramble on boys.
Editor’s Note: For more information on Led Zepagain please visit their website here.