I’ve often wondered about tribute acts. What’s it like to devote your life to recreating the sounds of another band? Don’t you ever want to play your own material? The tribute groups I’d seen before were Beatles acts, and though some of them were very impressive (I’ve seen Rain twice, and I’d like to see them again), they attempted to slavishly recreate everything about the band, which included adopting fake Liverpudlian accents and calling each other “John” or “Ringo.” Inevitably, a little something was lost in translation. As Lez Zeppelin took the stage at Musica here in Akron, Ohio, this past Saturday, I was curious to see how they would attempt to recreate the sound and fury of Led Zeppelin, especially since their gimmick is that–as their name implies–they’re an all-girl band.
Turns out, their gimmick isn’t so much a gimmick. From the moment they launched into a ferocious “Immigrant Song,” all of my questions seemed suddenly irrelevant. Lez Zeppelin rocks so hard that you don’t want to think about why they would perform the music of a decades-gone band; you just want to revel in the how. And how, indeed. Musica is a pretty small place, one that would seem more suited to opening act Thom Chacon, a Dylanesque singer-songwriter. Yet those close quarters played to the band’s strengths. I’m sure they can kick up quite a ruckus in a larger venue, but at Musica, the audience simply found itself dwarfed by sheer, glorious noise.
Vocalist Shannon Conley is an energetic frontwoman, leading the band with a raspy, bluesy howl that is unmistakably Zeppelin but also, refreshingly, far from an imitation. She has Robert Plant’s stage mannerisms down pat, but they don’t feel like affectations; they seem like a natural extension of her passionate performance. She can play a mean harmonica, to boot. Guitarist and founding member Steph Paynes makes Jimmy Page’s signature licks and riffs her own. At one point, she even started shredding with a cello bow. The other three leave the stage, leaving Paynes to destroy your mind all by her lonesome. The cello-shredding in particular stretched the limits of Musica’s acoustics. If there had been any dogs nearby, I’m pretty sure they’d have gone insane.
Much like John Paul Jones, bassist Megan Thomas is the cool, silent partner who adds greatly to the band’s booming sound. Just like Jones, she ably switches to keyboard or mandolin when the need arises. As for Leesa Harrington-Squyres, the group’s resident John Bonham…well, words kind of fail me. After the show, I heard one attendee declare, “The drummer was a goddess.” And, yeah. Pretty much. Harrington-Squyres is, to put it lightly, fucking thunderous. She finally got a solo during “Rock and Roll” late in the set, and it was a highlight.
Other highlights: During the “la la la” portion of “The Ocean,” Conley and Paynes, sharing the same mic, threatened to make out; a condom left over from Chacon’s performance (as part of some in-joke, a girl tied it to his microphone) led to some good cracks from Conley about Akron being the Rubber City; the girls’ harmonies on the closing “aah”s of “Going to California” were heavenly, and to make it even better, they briefly segued into “All in all is all we are” from Nirvana’s “All Apologies” (Conley: “It’s still from the best, right?”); and also, kudos for playing for two hours and not doing “Stairway to Heaven,” despite the loud insistence of some audience members. Speaking of, one drunken patron caused my favorite non-musical moment of the evening. All night, he had been shouting for “Custard Pie”–which the band never played–and after yelling, “Gimme a slice of that ‘Custard Pie’!,” Conley shot back: “Only if you make it back on to the bus.”
Unless we’re very, very lucky, we’re never going to see the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin perform together again. So if you’re a Zeppelin fan, I cannot stress this enough: you need to go see Lez Zeppelin when they’re in your neck of the woods. They do what every tribute group should: they mimic without reeking of mimicry, and they erect an electrifying shrine to what was simply some good goddamn rock ‘n’ roll. Chuck Klosterman once called them the “most powerful all-female band in rock history.” As an avowed fan of girl rockers, I can’t say I disagree.