The impact of rock gods Led Zeppelin continues to resonate to this day. While the remaining members do reconvene on occasion, it is presumably a different experience to the legendary performances of old where the band were a far more ambitious and creative force of music. Their legacy is largely unmatched anywhere and when it comes to consistent quality, their early albums remain touchstones of the hard rock genre as well as notable standard bearers. It is not surprising that a Led Zep tribute band would rise up from Adelaide in the mid-eighties but it is quite an achievement to not just still be going but to be doing so on the stages of grand venues such as the Sydney Opera House and in a recurring capacity. Zep Boys are that band and as vocalist Vince Contarino will state, doing justice to the vocal prowess of Robert Plant is both challenging and rewarding, especially when backed by the thirty piece Black Dog Orchestra. The show’s popularity continues to gain momentum at a comfortable pace with a return overseas jaunt to the UK in 2019 now acting as a springboard to expanding their reach into Europe. So, Loud Online had another chat with Vince as he endured yet another stinking hot day in Adelaide with typically laconic fashion.
How do you cope performing in that kind of heat?
Oh well, I have done it before but you kind of forget about it once you’re up and running. I do remember this one time when Bruce Kulick was touring in 2004 or something and I was singing for him. He got me to sing for him because he couldn’t do the Kiss stuff because he was promoting his solo album. So when he came out here we did a tour of the East Coast and we were at the Corner Hotel and for fuck’s sake, if it wasn’t forty five degrees that day, it was really hot and in a chock-a-block pub. I passed out two or three times during the set. I didn’t fall – it was like when you get that blackness behind the eyes as you lose consciousness, then you cannot feel your skin and you go all sort of numb followed by a cold sweat. That happened a few times while I was singing and I thought, ‘far out, this is dangerous’.
I was going to ask you about singing Paul Stanley’s material but you beat me to the punch.
Ah, yeah, mate, I get stopped in the street and told I look like Paul Stanley. Want me to sign your Kiss album? Ha-ha.
Paul Stanley’s vocal range is incredible. How does his singing compare to Robert Plant?
Robert Plant’s vocals are more demanding but having said that, Paul Stanley is not a slouch when it comes to singing and he has got some big notes with the way that they construct their songs and choruses. They write more pop styled songs with more repetitive choruses and it is at the top of your vocal range. So, you’ve got to keep repeating it and going so it is a stamina of sorts rather than hitting the heights. I wasn’t into Kiss music much and never was but I did it because the guys in the band are dear friends of mine and they love them. They love Bruce, they love Kiss and they didn’t have a singer to do it and I drew of that energy of pleasing my mates. I really loved doing that tour and I did get utter respect for Paul Stanley as a singer because it isn’t easy, man. I’ve so much respect and to work in front of Kiss fans…man, they’re fanatical and crazy. You’d think they’re feral but you’d talk to them afterwards and they’d be a neurology specialist. ‘Fuck me, what?’ and you’d think they were bogans.
That’s rare but it feeds well into Zeppelin’s standards. A lot of fans would expect it to be on par with the recorded material. That must put some demands on you for the show.
Yes, I’m glad you said that. When we [Zep Boys] decided to do this, I made a conscious effort and we used to have these advertising campaigns about note for note renditions. I wasn’t comfortable with that to be honest because I don’t do note for note renditions. But, what I do work on really hard with everything I’ve got is that I want that feeling that I get when I listen to that Zeppelin song. I want that feeling when we’re doing and if I don’t achieve it, I won’t do the song. It might be a little bit different here and there but if you nail the feeling it is better than doing it note for note and not getting the feeling. If you’re telling a story, you can read it from the book word for word or you can read the book, memorise it and then tell that story with all of the feeling you’ve got. The audience will then get into the parts coming up or the exciting bits they love which is more important to me. However, one of the ways to get that feel is to hit some of the highs, performing some of those great riffs and getting the phrasing right so overall, the skill level has to be up.
Since Zeppelin are British and went on to become a worldwide smash does it mean that UK audiences are more demanding than Australian audiences?
That is what I thought, man and there is a good question. We were newbies until our last UK tour. I’ll tell you what, when you go over there, they are quite sophisticated in their culture since they’ve got centuries of great art including theatre and music. Their music culture is different because there are people there that will go to the Opera and then go and listen to Motörhead to still get the same joys. I’m not sure how to articulate this about Australia and it’s not about education but I just think that in the UK they have seen more because of the tyranny of distance so we cannot get all of the acts here that they have other there – it is financially not possible. We do not have that exposure to all of the acts that they do so in seeing more and to generalise about their character, they seem to be more confident about yelling out and they hug you during meet and greets. They are very demonstrative so yeah, we are different, man. I thought it would be harder to work over there but in some ways, it was easier. We felt the pressure and we still worked very hard but I thought that they were more responsive over there than people generally are over here. That’s how we observed it but it could be different this time as we’re doing European cities so I am always learning.
Did you ever expect that this show would end up going to Europe? That is pretty substantial.
It is substantial but no, I did not expect it. I don’t expect to do a gig the local pub. I’ve been a professional musician for forty years and was a semi-professional for a few years before that. So, I’ve been in this game for a long time and I’ve had relative success early in the piece because when I was eighteen years old, I was touring Australia in bands. I respect how hard it is to just get a gig let alone to go overseas so I do not expect it. Still, I always had this thought of wishing to do this show overseas. I had a funny feeling it would be enjoyed because we’ve always wanted to present this act as an artistic show with respect for the music, not a tribute and covers act. Even though it is rock’n’roll and in the pub doesn’t mean it is not art. I always thought that they would love it over there and I feel comfortable talking about it now that I’m older in my late fifties but regardless of age, that is who I have always thought about musical performance. I had the opportunity to go over there in the past. I remember back in 1990 or so, I had this phone call from a promoter over there saying they were aware of Zep Boys and wanted to get us over to England. It was awesome and I was thinking, ‘fucking hell, you little ripper’ since I was thirty years old, raring to go and full of beans. But they said they wanted us to work on our act from the visual side including dying your hair blonde and start dressing in the gear. I could not believe my response but I said, ‘oh, look, I’m really sorry but we’re not the band for you.’ It broke my heart but there was no way that I was going to do that shit. There was no fucking way because that is not what we are about and if they couldn’t see that I didn’t want to work with them. It took me a while to tell the guys in the band because I thought they might lynch me but mate, I am really glad because we have been going for thirty two years and I think we’ve never reached those big, big heights because I’ve managed the band all of those years but I think that we are still going because I have managed the band.
That makes sense and you’ve tapped into tribute bands trying to be lookalikes. It doesn’t work.
Yeah, if you take yourself back to 1986, the music scene was different. It was still local bands playing your Top 40 songs around town or they’re be some smaller pubs doing alternative and indie music. Thrash metal was also the thing at the time but there were no tribute acts at all so when we decided to do this there wasn’t really a tribute band thing but there were impersonators for people like Elvis and a couple of Beatles bands which had been going along for years and years. It never progressed but as soon as we did the Zep thing and it was successful, then they started coming out of the woodwork. Now, I know why and that is because agents and musicians saw something successful to make money out of it because that is how they do it but that is not why we did it. We did it because of all those reasons that I was talking to you about before – it is about putting on a show, considering why we are doing it and how we are going to relate to an audience. It’s about doing something artistic under the guise of Led Zeppelin’s music and rock and roll. So the depth of these other bands isn’t always there from the beginning. Some do but you have sift through all of the fucking shit to get to them. We are lucky because we established ourselves early on in the piece. If the Zep Boys came out now, I do not think that we would be able to do what we do. We’ve got a track record which is a good thing.
The Opera House shows are always great. Have you made any changes to the arrangements for 2019?
We now have Dom Harvey [as opposed to Nicholas Buc on previous shows] doing our conducting and we are always working on different dynamics as well as more ways to include the orchestra since we are getting more confident. When we first started with the orchestras, we didn’t know the protocol and thought they were something to be revered. It was a little bit of that, ‘oh, we’re just a rock band but they are an orchestra.’ But now we are comfortable with collaborating with them so we try to bring the orchestra out more and even bring out certain players. There is always something up our sleeves that we’re going to do that is different. There are a few different things that will happen in the Opera House this time. The repertoire has a couple of song additions.
Zeppelin’s music lends itself to orchestration. Foreigner played at the Opera House recently and it was a fantastic show.
You know, the singer Kelly Hansen is amazing and he doesn’t look fake. When he sings, he is singing really well. That is why it is working, man. I know they are great songs but that guy out the front has given that band life. To do Lou Gramm’s vocals isn’t easy and he doesn’t come across as an impersonator, he comes across as the real deal.
Watching a show like that, you get a realisation that for some songs connecting to people in the audience, they are reliving their life moments, celebrating these songs. Do you ever get that sense of people’s deep appreciation of Zeppelin when performing their songs at big venues?
Yes, absolutely and it is a wonderful thing. Some people will come along to see the look and to hear the orchestra or some people come along because they just love their rock music. But, some people get blown away with the nostalgia and all of that music with all of the memories that come flooding back. The people in the audience tell me this when meet them so yeah, there is a certain sense of nostalgia attached to it. Everybody gets whatever they want out of a show and it is our responsibility to turn them on. We have to be the catalyst to those feelings. If we don’t do it well then they are not in touch with those feelings. That is our duty as live performers; that is what we are supposed to do. So, we can get caught up in this verse and that verse and that has got to go like this but if you are not doing the essential thing of what live performance is then forget it, then there is no point.
Have you had many people approach you who saw Zeppelin live in Australia in the early seventies?
Yeah, we meet them. Whether they were here in Adelaide, at Memorial Drive or the Sydney Showgrounds and people tell us about seeing Led Zeppelin for the first time in 1972, how their whole world had changed and that they were just amazing. Can you imagine Zeppelin in ’72? They were full of beans and wow, young and going for it because I think that a few years later, the lifestyle was starting to catch up with all of them. The excesses and God, especially Robert Plant. It’s funny though because he is the one that cleaned himself up and is still going. Wow, what a dude, what a master.
True, yet they managed to write and record Presence somehow. That’s pretty good.
Oh, yeah, ooh and well, Jimmy Page survived In Through the Out Door. I think that they used to wake him up to play. Ha-ha.
Finally, would you say that Zeppelin is one of the more influential bands on the heavy metal genre?
I don’t know because I don’t think of them as heavy metal. They are really blues based so I always thought that it was Black Sabbath or someone like that. I think that maybe they were in ways of the mystery and the mythology of heavy metal, yes. But, you know, with black Sabbath, when bands like Soundgarden came out, I thought they were all just trying to get Black Sabbath riffs going.
3 & 4/1: Sydney Opera House, Sydney. Tickets.