The most surreal moment of spending a few days in the company of Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience is exiting Massey Hall after the 2nd show of the band's current mini-tour. I turn and look at the door as it closes, and it’s the stage door, with a single light bulb over it and a sign on it. Along with Maple Leaf Gardens, Massey Hall is the iconic place for any kid from Southern Ontario, and I’ve just left it by the stage door.
We entered by the front door, where the sign is the old Massey Hall sign, the one that’s been there since my parents took me to see the Irish Rovers - which would be not long before Rush recorded All The Worlds a Stage, one of the great live albums - there. Our seats are right beside the sound board, the best seats in the house. Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience is an audio/video rock and roll concert and the tone of the show is set immediately. The show starts with the night's first video clip before the band comes on and kicks off with Rock and Roll. Jason, the son, paying tribute to his father John with his dad’s most recognizable drum part. At the songs conclusion Bonham rips into the final drum fill, less like the father, now playing it like Jason himself, as we’ve come to know the song from Celebration Day. Your reminded of the moment in the film and can almost picture Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones smiling over the drum kit at him as he nails it, the iconic 2007 concert’s final moment, the beginning on this evening. Celebration Day looms large at the Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience shows this time around. It is mentioned in one of Jason’s monologues: the dream of a Led Zeppelin album in stores bearing his name, and adjustments have been made to some of the songs because of Celebration Day.
“I was sick last week, so I never got a chance to rehearse that song,” James Dylan is explaining to me. The back stage area in Massey Hall is more like an apartment, with a number of adjoining rooms, a balcony and a kitchen area. We are walking up the stairs as he continues: “That’s the first time I have sung that song with the band. Ironic, huh?” he asks. He's talking about Sick Again, the set's second song, adjoined to Rock and Roll as Led Zeppelin did it in 1975: Bonham has apparently been listening to the old bootlegs again. It's a great start to what is going to be a great show.
Our first stop is the Massey Hall box office. Going past the large main doors, we can faintly hear music coming from inside. I put my ear to the door and can hear Dylan singing:
Lyin', cheatin', hurtin, that's all you seem to do.
Messin' around with every guy in town,
Puttin' me down for thinkin' of someone new.
Always the same, playin' your game,
Drive me insane, trouble is gonna come to you...
I pull my ear away having heard all I need to for now. At dinner I message Dylan: “sound checking Your Time is Gonna Come, eh? Sounds good” (the eh? is added to remind him he’s in Canada now). Later he tells me it’s a new addition to the setlist so they needed to play it through.
At soundcheck in Kitchener the next day I’m sitting in the front row, the only person there not traveling with the band. As they go through Houses of the Holy, stopping it a couple of times to get something right, even going so far as to play a recording when indecision rears it’s head, I assume it’s going to be added to the setlist. It isn’t and neither is Trampled Underfoot, which they also soundchecked. Pity, both sound great. But Bonham shows himself in soundcheck to be a bit of a perfectionist, and besides, what song should they remove to add those two in? That was always the dilemma the originals faced, and it’s one Bonham has too. When you have more than 80 quality songs, what do you leave out?
I've heard before that Jason Bonham is a good singer. Robert Plant, introducing Misty Mountain Hop during the O2 show in 2007 said, “Jason’s a pretty cool singer..." I hear first hand just how good a singer Jason is when he and keyboardist Stephen LeBlanc do a Ray Charles soundalike rendition of Georgia on my Mind. Later, he belts out the ending of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, giving a good Robert with his lemon thoroughly squeezed imitation. Yes, Jason Bonham is a good singer.
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You may be the highlight of the show. At Massey Hall, guitarist Tony Catania’s acoustic guitar, set on a Steve Howe-like guitar stand, had a patch problem. It wasn’t working is the short version, and it was an obvious problem, not like say, they skipped a verse in Kashmir. Even Jason was peering over his drum kit, the look of a boss, worried that something is going awry, on his face. For Catania it was just a day at the office, however, and he stepped away and began the song on his Les Paul - just as Jimmy Page played it the few times Zeppelin played this song live. By the second time through the verse, the problem was solved and Catania finished the song moving between the two guitars as the arrangement was designed to do. The dynamics of the song, Catania’s acoustic to electric, Steve LeBlanc moving between his lap steel and acoustic guitar, singer Dylan simply nailing it with every note, electrified the crowd. This isn’t good, this is great and the Toronto crowd gives the night's first, but hardly last, standing ovation. In Kitchener the crowd is more vocal, and throughout the song are cheering and whooping. I am not the only one who gets chills when these guys play this song, and I know what Jimmy Page envisioned for Led Zeppelin back in 1968 was this: exactly this.
Playing slide and playing the harmonica have certain things in common: both are staples of the blues, both are easy to play, difficult to play well. Catania follows up his expressive playing on Babe I’m Gonna Leave You with some excellent slide work for You Shook Me. He hits those first few notes with such authority, clean tone and impeccable tuning there’s just no doubting, this guy can play slide. Standing beside him on stage, almost in the wings, his childhood friend is playing the harp.
“This is Gary Hood,” James introduces us, “the hardest working man on the show.” Hood is tall with long blond hair which he wears in a ponytail. Onstage, he adds a fedora and looks the part of a blues player perfectly. I offer a compliment on his playing, and he accepts it quietly, almost embarrassed that anybody noticed. On the first tour, bassist Michael Devin handled the harp duties as necessary. When Devin left the band, “they told me, I guess you’re doing it, you’re the singer,” Dylan says. “But I’ve never played harp before.” As Catania’s guitar tech, they overheard Hood playing the harp one day and he got the job. Hood plays the harp on You Shook Me and When the Levee Breaks. "We're going to start working on Nobody's Fault But Mine," Dylan jokes, "to give him another song." Just one more thing for the busiest guy on the tour to do.
Gary Hood may be the busiest guy on the tour, but Stephen LeBlanc is the busiest guy on the stage. “I have my own tech this tour,” he tells me over dinner. “It helps a lot to make those quick changes.” The quick changes he is talking about are when he moves between lap steel and keyboards, or guitar and keyboards. For What is and What Should Never Be he uses his electric, a telecaster deluxe with two humbucker pickups, four volume/tone controls and the oddest pick-guard. “That guitar rocks,” he tells me when I ask him about it.
LeBlanc keeps his hair long and when he plays keyboard he hunches over them like a madman from the old horror movies (or Garth Hudson, take your pick). As he bobs his head, the hair flies around, creating a dynamic visual effect. On guitar, he does much the same. The hair, he’ll tell you, is too long. “It’s a mess,” he says specifically, but he understands that the longer hair adds to his stage presence.
But LeBlanc brings more to the band than just flying hair. “I’m not sure I would have made this band if I had to audition for it,” he says. We are talking about Brian Titchy’s Bonzo Bash, in which he is a member of the backing band, The Moby Dicks, and Sass Jordan’s name comes up. I tell him my old story about maybe, just maybe, auditioning for Sass’s band way back in 1982. “Fortunately, I’ve never had to do an audition,” he says. “With this band we just all got together and jammed. When it was over Jason said, ‘well that was good.’”
James Dylan is holding court after the Kitchener show and tells the story of how LeBlanc made his way into the band. “We had all got together, and Jason said, ‘I guess all we need now is someone who plays keyboards, guitar and lap steel. Anyone know anybody?’” The question is presented as if they are looking for a needle in a haystack, but Michael Devin knew LeBlanc and Devin’s recommendation was good enough for Bonham, no audition required.
During soundcheck, LeBlanc turns on the Clavinet sample and starts a funky line. Jason picks it up and they settle into a groove that would remind Bonham of The Who’s Eminence Front. Tony Catania joins in on the theremin with a low scratching sound. It’s a really cool groove, and you can’t help hope somebody captured it on tape. As the band are talking about an album, about some really great originals, I think to myself I’d love to hear this idea developed.
LeBlanc turns back to his keyboards for Thank You, the big organ sound suiting his Phantom of the Opera stage persona, while Dylan picks up his Ovation acoustic guitar for the first time. “This one is for my Dad,” Jason says before they begin the lovely ballad. A slide show and old home movies of John Bonham play on the screen behind Jason.
One thing everybody mentions about James Dylan is that he is spot on with every note. He’ll tell you he had a very little training when he was 18, then promptly forgot it all. A professional singing teacher back stage asks him about it, and then refuses to believe his answer. During soundcheck Jason and he have a discussion about the opening note in Houses of the Holy. It matters, to both of them that he gets the it just right. His ability to hit the notes is evident in Immigrant Song, notes Robert Plant himself stopped trying to hit before his 25th birthday. But James, at 46, can still wail like a rampaging viking. "Singing like Robert takes its toll. You could hear changes in Robert's voice over the course of only a few years." James tells the vocal teacher. "If my voice remains as it is for a while longer, I figure I'm very fortunate".
There's changes in the Jason Bonham camp this time around. Bonham has changed managers and backstage there's a buzz around the band, they're all quietly excited about something. I ask about a possible album, and am told that it's happening - it's even suggested I get a listen of some of the new material, but that never happens. It's suggested more dates are coming in the summer, possibly bigger dates. But there's more, something bigger, and on three different occasions I am almost told what it is. Each band member is keeping their own counsel on the big news, but each was having a hard time not telling, biting their lips before saying, "I can't." Stephen LeBlanc tells me, when I mention his keyboard work on Since I've Been Loving You, "I've always wanted a real hammond organ on tour. Maybe this summer I'll get one." Whatever it is, it's big and according to the rumour mill, while the band is trying to hold it in, Jason is holding court elsewhere telling his guests what is up.
There’s also a new sound and video crew for this tour. “They’re the best in the business,” I’m told, but none the less, two shows in, there’s kinks. First and foremost among them is Moby Dick. Since the beginning of The Led Zeppelin Experience Jason has done the drum solo on Moby Dick alongside a video sequence of his father from The Song Remains the Same. As of the Toronto show, they hadn’t had time to work out the video synching with the new crew, so Moby Dick has been noticeably absent from the show. At sound check the day after Toronto, it’s the biggest concern, and a lot of conversation goes on between Jason and the crew. He’s determined it has to be there, and almost an hour is spent on figuring out the process.
“Do we go straight into it from Immigrant Song?” the crew asks. “No, I need a minute. It’s a lot of work,” Jason answers. Later, he wonders if they can shorten Moby Dick a bit. “It comes in at two minutes,” Jason tells them. “Can we make it happen at a minute and a half?” I’m not sure exactly what is two minutes, but assume it’s the time from the start of the drum solo to the start of the video. For reasons unclear to me, this couldn’t be done, so they do a run through at two minutes.
"That's the best I've ever done it," Jason says when it's done. "Tonight I'll be all..." and he starts playing a series of apparently embarrassingly pedestrian tom fills, but I can't hear that they are any worse than what he did. If he played the pedestrian version of the solo that evening, which finally makes it's appearance in the set in Kitchener, neither I nor anybody else in the crowd complained.
When he first called James Dylan to ask him to sing in his band, Dylan didn't believe it was Jason Bonham. He thought it was his friends playing a joke. When Bonham finally convinced him he was the real Jason Bonham, and began explaining his concept for the show, one thought worried Dylan the whole time. "Will I have to wear the wig?" he asked when Bonham finished his spiel. "The wig," Dylan, who is a graphic artist when not touring with Jason Bonham, says now "was a deal breaker."
"No wig," Bonham replied. "We want to do this with some dignity."
How then to explain the video after the intermission? It is of Jason and his parents, circa mid-1970's: Jason, a wad of gum in his mouth, drumming; Jason wearing a silly nose making faces for the camera while his dad drums to Dr. John's Right Place Wrong Time; Jason dancing to Gary Glitter's I'm The Leader Of The Gang (I Am!), a silly dance that's embarrassing for Jason and amusing to everybody else in the theatre.
"That dancing wouldn't be so bad," Jason says after the video, "if it was once. But it wasn't," he laughs. Then the count in for the second set:
We've done four already
and now were steady,
and then they went
My own band plays The Ocean and a trouble spot in it for our guitar player, i.e. me, is coming out of the solo and hitting on the verse section. Catania nails this, and I notice night to night an adjustment: in Toronto he plays the solo straight, in Kitchener he kicks in the wah-wah pedal. "The one thing Robert told Jason," Catania tells me at soundcheck, "is do your own thing with the music." So Jason gives the guys some leeway with the arrangements, to wah or not to wah is one of these times.
After The Ocean Dylan picks up his Ovation while LeBlanc is handed his Martin acoustic. Catania starts Over the Hills and Far Away off on his Les Paul, and he's soon being doubled by Dylan. Over the Hills is a complicated song to play and these guys handle it with ease. It's indicative of how good they are, how good they've become that they make Over the Hills and Far Away seem so easy.
"Jason's a great blues drummer." Dorian Heartsong is leaning against the doorway, his long black curly hair framing his face. Backstage he is casual and easygoing, he speaks softly and has what my mother would say is 'a nice smile.' (Of course, she would also say he needs a haircut.) "A slow blues is hard for drummers to play, and Jason nails it," he continues, having been asked about playing with Jason, and the conversation has turned to Since I've Been Loving You.
"Dorian is the new guy in the band," is an oft heard joke. He has, in fact, played more Led Zeppelin Experience shows than his predecessor, Michael Devin. Having come to the band on Devin's recommendation after Devin moved on to Whitesnake, however, Heartsong will likely always be the new guy. For James Dylan, he calls him the yin to his yang: "We have long talks on the bus," Dylan says of Heartsong. "We talk about space and stuff," to which they both laugh.
Jason Bonham is the real front man for this show and Since I've Been Loving You is Dylan's first chance to speak to the audience: "It's the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience, not the James Dylan Led Zeppelin Experience," he said when I interviewed him in 2011. At both shows he mentions his cottage in Algonquin Park, a few hours north of Toronto. It is, along with his wife and family, his favourite topic of conversation. The cottage has been in his family 3 generations and he's been going there since he was a boy. Of his wife, he rarely mentions her without referring to her as beautiful, as in "my beautiful wife Averelle," or "the beautiful..." So much so that someone learning English around the band might think Beautiful is her given name.
While introducing Since I've Been Loving You, Dylan mentions it is the first song Catania and Bonham ever played together. And while it's true that yes, it's a slow blues and yes, Bonham is great in it and yes, Stephen LeBlanc shines on the keys and yes, James Dylan wails and moans and flat out sings his ass off, Since I've Been Loving You is a guitarists song, and Catania shines.
The same applies to The Song Remains the Same. In the last year I attempted to learn this song for a band tryout, and I can confirm, it's a complex song musically as well as technically. The band was flawless and carried the song with energy, exactly the way it should be played.
For soundcheck in Kitchener, the band worked on Moby Dick and Houses of the Holy then played through Trampled Underfoot and When the Levee Breaks. As well, partial versions of Kashmir, Over the Hills and Far Away and Rock and Roll are played and they jammed Stephen LeBlanc's Clavinet jam, Georgia on My Mind and Earth Wind and Fire's After the Love is Gone.
After When the Levee Breaks, there's much discussion about Catania's sound. He is using 2 Marshall amplifier heads and 1 Orange head, each fed through it's own speaker cabinet and then miked separately. "Can you turn down the Orange and increase the Marshalls?" Jason asks the soundcrew. They want the sound softened, and Catania takes over on the mic, looking for the perfect tone.
Kashmir gets a partial run-through because there was problems the night before. It was almost a disaster I was told, and did I notice? Not at all, is the answer. In fact, it sounded powerful. This is partly because Catania has switched from his Danelectro guitar to a brown Les Paul Studio. I track him down after soundcheck and ask him about the switch. "Jason wanted me to go to the Les Paul," he tells me, "to get a big, thick sound, like how they played it on Celebration Day."
He's also got a new pedal board, and he's looking to Celebration Day to provide some inspiration there. "I was at that concert," he says, "and watched Jimmy using his pedals and thought 'Ohhh.' Now I'm starting to do the same in some spots." He a serious, thoughtful musician who approaches guitar playing like a thorough professional. If he came of age in the 60's or 70's it seems likely he would have been a big name guitarist, and in truth, the entire band have the talent and dedication to be stars, if only their era wasn't the 90's and the 00's.
"Jimmy was very interested when he heard I was using the acoustic stand on Stairway," Catania continues talking about equipment. He had seen Yes's Steve Howe use a stand in the 70's and always remembered it. When Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience was forming and Robert Plant told Jason, "do your own thing with the music," Catania knew he wanted to use the stand, and get a studio/live mix on Stairway to Heaven. When Stephen LeBlanc joins us, he mentions he could add some slide in Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You and I suggest he add the slide part in the Stairway solo. LeBlanc, however, says he's busy on keyboards and Catania protests he can play that part no problem. Watching them knock Stairway to Heaven out of the park a few hours later, I note they are both right.
I never meet Jason Bonham. He has his own room backstage and stays in there with selected friends and family. At the soundcheck he enters and exits by the rear of the stage, the stage being the one place I don't have access to. In Toronto, Dylan takes someone's Celebration Day CD to Jason to be signed, and asks if we have anything we need signed. I bought the Celebration Day LP before the show, but stored it in the car. It occurs to me as he's asking, I should have brought it in with me.
Dylan does, however, want me to meet Sam, and goes into Bonham’s lair to get him. He is gone about five minutes and comes back without Sam. “Jason’s telling stories back there and I didn’t want to interrupt,” he tells us. Sam emerges a minute later, and we meet.
Sam is a legend in Led Zeppelin fan circles: he owned the LedZeppelin.com domain and ran a fan site on it. When the band decided to do their own website, Sam got asked to run it. He also runs Robert Plant’s website, and travels with Jason on these tours, although this is his last night with this tour as he has another tour to do. Sam is so tight with Jason that the last time I saw them in Orillia, Ontario, Sam's hometown, I met James and Stephen out by the stage. The only fans who got backstage were pals of Sam: hey, I only know the singer, you want to meet Jason, you need to know the web guy. Sam and I exchange a few pleasantries, but he’s on his way out the door and detailed discussions of our websites or how he hooked up with the band will have to wait for another day.
The backstage atmosphere is different on each of the two night's I am there. At Massey Hall the guys are lingering around, guests are comfortable in the apartment like backstage area. Stephen LeBlanc is having a beer and slipping out to the balcony for a smoke. James Dylan is talking and moving around. Dorian Heartsong chats with a guest for a while and takes time to talk to us as well. Tony Catania slips out for a couple of beers: Toronto is apparently an old stomping ground for him and Jason. Jason's 16-year old rapper son, Jager Bonham, is running in and out of the rooms, being chased by someone unknown. The band is staying in town, and the atmosphere is relaxed. No one is in a hurry, and some form of one-on-one conversation is possible.
In Kitchener, the bus is leaving about an hour and a half after the show. They are traveling through the night and have a border to cross. The bulk of the backstage guests are James', so he spends half an hour chatting to the group of us. But around us, the scene is more frantic. We are standing in a hallway just beside the stage and occasionally have to move because the tear down crew is pushing equipment past us. Stephen LeBlanc joins us, then runs off to get a drink, disappears again, later is back. At one point we can hear a piano from one of the side rooms: LeBlanc is teaching Jager how to play Motley Crue's Home Sweet Home. Dorian stops and says hello, but quickly moves on to change and pack. Later he passes us as he heads towards the bus, pulling his suitcase behind him.
Tony Catania joins the group. I've met Tony three times previously, and other than a specific conversation about his guitars earlier in the day, he's said very little. Tonight he's in a more expansive mood, and he's telling us a story about seeing Zoe Bonham in New York. He's still wearing his stage clothes and he's animated and funny.
"We're like a family," Dylan says to me backstage at Massey Hall. "We all get along great together. We all look out for each other. I love these guys." That they look out for each other I know from experience, having in the past received an email from one in defence of another. Stephen LeBlanc echoes the sentiment as we head out for dinner in Kitchener. "I get along great with all these guys," he says. "There's never any fights or drama."
The band finishes up with a rollicking, uptempo version of Whole Lotta Love, complete with a Tony Catania Theremin solo and James Dylan getting the crowd to belt out "Way down inside..." As we are escorted to the front door of Kitchener's Center in the Square, no stage door exit on this night, we leave the way we came in, the power of Whole Lotta Love seems somehow to echo through the auditorium still.
Note: All pictures have been removed from this article due to server problems.
Massey Hall Toronto, Ontario - Jan 31, 2013
Rock and Roll
Your Time Is Gonna Come
Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You
You Shook Me
What Is and What Should Never Be
Over the Hills and Far Away
Since I've Been Loving You
The Song Remains the Same
When the Levee Breaks
Stairway to Heaven
Whole Lotta Love
Centre in the Square, Kitchener, Ontario - Feb 1, 2013
Rock and Roll
Your Time Is Gonna Come
Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You
You Shook Me
What Is and What Should Never Be
Over the Hills and Far Away
Since I've Been Loving You
The Song Remains the Same
When the Levee Breaks
Stairway to Heaven
Whole Lotta Love