If you want to get paid to play some of the best rock ’n’ roll ever made without having to (a) write it, or (b) build a fan base, forming a tribute band is a good idea. Fans will scream when you charge into “Don’t Stop Believin’” — even if they don’t remotely believe you’re Journey. Doubtless this is one of the founding principles for such Pittsburgh acts as Ten …, the Pearl Jam tribute, and, winning the prize for the most awesomely literal band name ever, Bon-Journey. They are probably playing bars near you right this moment.
Lez Zeppelin takes this can’t-fail formula and turns it up to 11: an all-female band playing the virtual definition of macho cock-rock. Now, that’s a great idea.
It’s a gimmick that’s launched the New York-based band into the pages of national magazines, including a great Chuck Klosterman-penned feature in Spin; into Electric Lady Studios with star producer Eddie Kramer; and, by the band’s account, onto U.K. festival stages that had never hosted a tribute act before.
“We never really thought that all of this would happen,” says Sarah McLellan, the band’s Australian-born vocalist. “The world is opening up to it, which we’re very excited about. And I don’t think there’s really any kind of ceiling to what we can achieve with the band, which is great.”
That Lez Zeppelin is itself somewhat famous should come as no surprise: It’s not like people pretending to be other people isn’t an extremely popular form of entertainment — that would be called acting. Jamie Foxx pretends to be Ray Charles, and we give him an Oscar. McLellan herself moved to NYC for a career in musical theater, appearing in the Queen musical We Will Rock You. (So is the Lez show kind of like musical theater? “No, it’s nothing like it at all,” she says firmly.)
But does it sound like Led Zeppelin? Sorta, yeah. Steph Paynes — an accomplished musician and music critic — rocks the Les Paul with confidence and swagger, while Lisa Brigantino (think John Paul Jones) and Helen Destroy (Bonham) do a decent impression of the hammer of the gods. While it’s theoretically possible for a woman to sing like Robert Plant, McLellan’s vocals are more akin to Heart, her similarities to Led Zep’s vocalist being mostly in the display of abs.
Sounding like your target band would seem to be pretty important, though — and it is, for standard tributes like Dark Star Orchestra, who travel around the country recreating the Grateful Dead’s music (and who, coincidentally, are in town this week too). Dark Star’s equipment, staging, set lists, even personnel are switched night to night, depending on precisely which Dead concert the group will recreate; at concert’s end, the audience is let in on the big secret, the date of the show recreated.
That kind of slavish attention to detail — the straightness of the whole enterprise — is kind of the opposite of Lez Zeppelin’s shtick, and it sounds much less interesting. Anyone who’s set foot on a college campus has absolutely no doubt that long-haired dudes can play Grateful Dead songs.
For Lez Zeppelin, doubt is integral to the concept. “There are still people even in today’s day and age, 2007, still people coming to shows thinking we’re not going to be able to play this music, because we’re women,” says McLellan. She seems to insinuate that forward-thinking individuals should feel mild outrage at that caveman attitude … yet it’s precisely that incredulity that puts asses in the seats.
If the gender politics seem a bit muddy, so’s the band’s identity at the moment. “It’s kind of come to the point where we’re not really sure what to call it, [or] what it is, but we don’t really call ourselves a tribute band anymore,” says McLellan. “It’s something beyond it, it’s taken its own kind of life.”
And by that, I can only imagine she’s referring to Lez Zeppelin’s original material. Yes. On the band’s new album, Emanation, Zep classics like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Ocean” join a couple of instrumentals concocted by the band, including “Winter Sun,” an acoustic guitar and mandolin number that, truthfully, does sound a bit like Zeppelin. McLellan hints that there’s more to come. Why?
Eh, whatever. Critics weren’t especially kind to Zep in the beginning, but people just kept going to the shows and buying its albums. And whether you go see Lez Zeppelin out of irony or (perhaps sexist) incredulity, you know you’re gonna have fun. Don’t stop believin’.
Lez Zeppelin. 6 p.m. (doors). Tue., Aug. 7. Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $13 ($15 day of show). 21 and over. 412-431-8800 or www.dieselpgh.com
Dark Star Orchestra. 8:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 6 (7 p.m. doors). Mr. Small’s Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $22. All ages. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com