Show Review – Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, 11/24/10, Warfield Theater, San Francisco, CA


Zeppelin Live – Or Something Like It

by Linda P.  Adams

So I saw this great tribute band last week.

Not just any cover band, either.

A bit of serendipity let me attend Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience at the Warfield in San Francisco. We meant to travel during the holiday week, so I should have missed it. But mountain passes requiring chains changed our minds. We stayed. The radio announced the concert that evening and I remembered–can we go? I called the theater quick to see if tickets were still available: YES.

This was exciting: not only to hear the Zep classics played live by Jason and his band, son of the late John “Bonzo” Bonham of Zeppelin–but to top it off, this would be my first rock concert.

Sure, I saw Celine in Vegas, but I tell ya, this is different.

We just didn’t go see stuff when I was younger. But I’m hooked. It won’t be my last.

I confess I’m a late bloomer to the Zeppelin bug. Missed it completely in the 70s as a kid when the family was into Manilow and John Denver. And I have a bad tendency to avoid things that are “too popular.” (It’s a good thing I figured out Harry Potter before everyone else did, and I’m still iffy on The Beatles.)

As I catch up, my heart realizes chances look pretty slim for a reunion tour.

So this event is, in my mind, just about as cool. I’ll take it!

And off we went, spur of the moment.

The Warfield is an interesting venue–it’s an older theater that anybody who’s anybody coming to San Francisco has probably played. It’s half-buried in a near-red-light district these days, complete with a “Gentlemen’s Club” next door and people sleeping in the cold on the streets outside.

But inside it still holds some grandeur, pomp and circumstance, and atmosphere. It’s a place with carved, painted ceilings and walls, floor and balcony seating–likely built to host operettas more than rock shows. My husband and I entertained ourselves initially checking out all the posters and photos on the walls of bands who played there–including the White Stripes, which was a fun nod back to It Might Get Loud.

We took our seats near front and center in the balcony and admired the view. I was checking out guitars loaded on the stage, counting the Marshall amps, and watching techs come on for those last-minute tunings. Okay, okay, so I’m a musician and I was drooling over the equipment. Yeah, so?

The room was electric with anticipation, and when Jason and the band came onstage to thunder into “Rock & Roll,” the crowd responded. We were a great crowd that night, if I say so myself–at times it seemed just as loud–or louder–than the band, and these boys ain’t quiet.

They tore through “Celebration Day” and “Black Dog” before Jason stopped to take a breath and introduce us to the audio-visual segment of his program. He reminisced beautifully about his dad growing up, showing us great still shots from his childhood, reminding us that while Bonzo is the great drummer to us, to him he was “just Dad” who grounded him when he didn’t do his homework, and that their family started out in a 15-foot trailer. He thanked us for coming out, and mentioned that “You know, a lot of people tell us this is wrong–” (going out to tour Zeppelin songs) but he didn’t care. It was plain this is Jason’s way of honoring his father, and no matter what you think about the tour, you have to respect that.

And I think it’s great. I’m glad he’s out doing it.

This band is amazing: something you know from the first number on. Jason is great. Hands-down, a great drummer – but I knew and expected that. With him is Michael Devin of Whitesnake on bass, Steven LeBlanc on keys, bass, and pedal steel, Tony Catania on lead, and James Dylan on vox.

Dylan couldn’t look further from Plant’s image–and once you get past the solid built, Daughtry-esque dude rocking a shaved head, black tee and long scarf and just listen, you can almost believe Robert’s in the hall. Visually his look nearly matched Jason, also bald and in black. Not that it mattered, but there were times I smiled to myself when they stood next to each other and looked like twin brothers.

Tony Catania on guitar must be either a trained actor as well as guitarist, or got an infusion of Page’s DNA–because his movements onstage are remarkably Jimmy’s style. The way he moves from his shoulders to his feet truly echoes footage I’ve seen of Page. If I could interview the band, I’d ask Catania all about how he worked that out. At any rate–he was fun to watch, and he’s got his axe skills down. He left “Dazed and Confused” with a properly shredded bow by the end of the solo.

And it becomes self-evident as the numbers play on how impossible it is to replace Jonesy with one person. His role takes two, and is the reason this is a five-piece, not four. Bass players in general get underrated, overlooked, and stuffed off in a dark corner to kick out their groove–but without a great one, you haven’t got a great band: period. And it was never more obvious to me how much talent he was driving home all along than when watching these two guys (LeBlanc and Devin) dive for their various different parts, trading off instruments at every turn, running themselves ragged.

Jason’s drumming is interesting: he sounds exactly like his dad with precision and honesty, while retaining his own personality with the kit. And yet–he doesn’t drum like his dad, either. Bonzo tore into the skins with a near-reckless abandon, working his head and body into the groove with a passion and energy I’ve never seen anywhere else. Jason is more demure. Not subdued, but he treats the kit with respect.

It’s a different kind of grace, a different magic.

The sound was so close it might have been Zeppelin, with my eyes shut–but the feel was something all its own. I was reminded of the difference every time the drummer–rather than the vocalist–introduced the songs. (That, and the concert was… hmmmm, strangely missing… that acoustic set in the middle where the drummer takes a break…. Did it make me wonder? Well–no.)

But: a primo, superb copy nonetheless. Well worth being there.

After several more numbers, Jason paused again to say, “So far so good yeah?” –which elicited huge screams and applause from us. He introduced “Thank You,” which would run footage including his grandmother, Bonzo’s mother Joan, on the big screen. “She’s 85, she’s had three heart attacks, and she still parties–she’s a true Bonham, yeah?” His sense of humor and love for his family shone through.

After that number he explained, “We only had one drum kit at home, so I never got to play with dad. We always wanted to someday though.” He told us that in an interview at  Royal Albert Hall, his dad was asked about his son’s drumming: “Well, he’s got good time, but his technique is [crap].” We laughed together.

“So now I get my wish,” Jason said, “But I never thought I’d be doin’ it every night.” And launched into his  rendition of “Moby Dick.” First the cameras are on Jason on the big screen, but midway through switched to Bonzo’s footage — and the volume doubled as Dad’s drums were piped in for the duet. It’s thunderous, fantastic.

And time for intermission.

As the band returned to the stage, we were treated with hilarious footage of Jason as a four-year old on the drum kit–and dancing to a groove. “What were my parents thinkin’?” he asked. “It’s OK. I go to therapy now. And dance classes.”

They started off the second half with “Good Times Bad Times,” “How Many More Times,” and a brilliant execution of “Since I’ve been Loving You” (a personal fave). Jason mentioned this is the first song he and Tony Catania ever played together, twenty years ago. It shows they know each other well by how tightly tuned they are to each other’s playing.

Introducing the next number, Jason said, “This song in rehearsals really sucked. It needs your help. Are you with me?” So we all screamed BONZO at the top of our lungs, which opened us into the recorded intro of “When the Levee Breaks.” Which is maybe my top favorite Zeppelin song ever. I loved it.

But as a musician, I had to smile. The trick worked, we’re all happy, the song is awesome, and Jason takes over on the kit after the intro. But he’s pretty much just confessed he knows he can’t get that fantastic Headley Grange sound here.

Doesn’t matter. We’re all on our feet clapping and stomping, and it’s the best, most excited the crowd got all night.

I included the setlist at the bottom–looking at other lists on the web, it’s clear they’re switching songs out a little and rearranging things as the tour progresses, which is cool. I’m happy with what I got to hear, though in truth I’d have stayed for the whole catalog if they’d have played it.

Jason paused again after a bit to tell a little story about playing the O2 arena–“For one night, I got to drum for Led Zeppelin.” He mentioned his anxiety, his worry about being able to play when it counts. And told us, “Robert got us in a huddle. And I remember him saying, ‘Just remember to have a good time – because no one can take that away from you.’”

Good thoughts, Robert. I’ll remember that.

From there the band launched into sweet, hypnotic renditions of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir,” and abruptly left the stage for us to cheer them into the encore we all knew was coming.

It seemed  to take a long time–to me–but we kept cheering. Loud. And I kept waiting. The standing ovation went on and on until they finally came back and rocked us with “Whole Lotta Love,” took their bows and finished out a great night.

And they deserved it.

Jason reiterated, “So– if this is wrong, I’m just gonna carry on being wrong, because we’re having a good time!”

Carry on. I had a great time too. Thank you.

The show was three hours long with intermission–and I could’ve stayed till morning. The guys had to be tired, but it never showed in the music or otherwise. Terrific show.

If you have the chance, go. You won’t be disappointed, and it’s a sweet ride through the music loved so well so long.

The thought kept hitting me though, that while it is a great thing to be doing, honoring Dad’s memory, and not wrong at all in my eyes, Jason–what a massive amount of talent we have here in these five guys. What could be happening if they were writing and playing their own music?

Man. That would be a great band, too.

I’d love to see that.

Warfield Setlist, Nov 24, 2010:

Rock & Roll
Celebration Day
Black Dog
Your Time Is Gonna Come
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
Dazed and Confused
What Is and What Should Never Be
The Lemon Song
Thank You
Moby Dick
Good Times Bad Times
How Many More Times
Since I’ve Been Loving You
When the Levee Breaks
The Ocean
Over the Hills and Far Away
I’m Gonna Crawl
Stairway To Heaven
Whole Lotta Love