Led Zeppelin left behind an untouchable legacy and their signature song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is probably being played somewhere on the planet right at this moment.
For better or worse, anyone that has worked in a guitar shop has probably heard Zeppelin riffs played into the ground. Following the recent re-issue of their back catalogue that included a wealth of unreleased and remixed companion material, interest in the band has again peaked.
Around this time last year, a homage to Led Zeppelin by Adelaide band Zep Boys and a highly skilled orchestra had a successful run along the east coast. That show was Stairway to Heaven Led Zeppelin Masters, and this year it returns with forty musicians bringing fans a huge selection of musical treats as they smash out twenty Zep classics. Once again fronted by Zep Boys, whose vocalist Vince Contarino ambitiously yet admirably covers the expressive vocal stylings of Robert Plant, the band is backed by a formidable orchestra, the suitably rechristened Black Dog Orchestra and is conducted by the highly experienced Nicholas Buc. Loud Online caught up with singer Vince Contarino to find out more about the upcoming Led Zeppelin Masters shows which is will also be trekking over to the UK in April.
Led Zeppelin Masters will be unleashed upon the Sydney Opera House again. That is a pretty substantial achievement.
I know, I was chatting to a publicist in the UK, saying how chuffed we are to be playing at the London Palladium. He said, ‘The Sydney Opera House has probably got more credibility than the London gig. Apparently, some people have played at the Palladium but the Opera House eludes them. How cool is that, man? I was amazed when I played the Opera House in January of 2016. I’d actually never been in there before that. You’ve got to pinch yourself sometimes.
What differences in the show can audiences expect for the upcoming shows?
It is an ongoing thing. We actually performed Stairway to Heaven Led Zeppelin Masters for the first time at Sydney Opera House in January, 2016. I’ve been doing shows with orchestras for many years. This particular show has different set of arrangements with conductor Nicholas Buc doing all the charts. The way they were charted was to keep the song in mind whereas in the past we tried to focus on how beautiful the symphony orchestra sounds with strings and woodwinds. This time we’ve thinking about the songs and giving them the dynamics they deserve. After the Sydney Opera House, we did Melbourne and Brisbane and started thinking of ways to improve sounds. It is a massive undertaking when you’ve got 40 musicians on stage. I thought I had the hardest gig having to sing like Robert Plant. I don’t want to be the sound guy. There are delicate instruments like woodwinds, violins, cellos to go through a bottom end heavy PA pumping out all these frequencies that reverberate through the room. We’ve improved on sounds, lighting and presentation of it and for the conductor it is starting to sink in better. The Black Dog Orchestra [aka Sydney Lyric Orchestra] have done it before so they’re close to it now. It is becoming more refined which lifts our confidence to give it more intensity in performance.
Is it a challenge going from a band format to then working with a conductor?
It is different. For a band it is traditional rock and roll to just turn it up and there are skills involved but you don’t have to worry about over powering other instruments. In this situation, there is no room to do a few more bars of a song. You’ve got to stick to the script because the orchestra is reading the music. There are no amplifiers on stage, it is all underneath so we don’t blow the orchestra away and all monitoring is in-ear. You can hear yourself talking on stage but out the front with PA is where it is pumping. You cannot make mistakes and need to be on the ball the whole way through as you’re under the microscope. You cannot lose concentration so it keeps you bloody honest.
Led Zeppelin never shied away from being symphonic but would you say that Deep Purple started it off?
Funny you say that, as I worked with Jon Lord in Adelaide with the Adelaide Symphonic Orchestra and performed his Concerto for Rock Band and Orchestra in 2008. So I got to work with him and I think he was the first one to do it. He told me that initially people thought he was crazy to do it. He was lovely; a master musician. He did it first but he wrote a concerto whereas what we are doing is taking the compositions of Led Zeppelin and orchestrating them. So say you listen to a song from Physical Graffiti where there are 15 Jimmy Page played guitar parts tracked; live they can only play one so Led Zeppelin deconstructed it. What we can do is take a lot of the overdubs and palm them off to other instruments. The conductor understands instruments well so he can then allocate lines to say the French horn, viola, oboe or cello. He may tweak a line a bit depending on instrumentation. What we are able to do is play a whole lot of the parts that the band couldn’t play on stage because they were only a four piece band.
The catalogue of Led Zeppelin is daunting and vast. Still, are you playing anything less known from say and album such as Presence?
Mate, [we’re playing] the best song off Presence with ‘Achilles Last Stand’. How good is that tune? See, with an orchestra it keeps building. You think at some point it cannot sound bigger but it does with an orchestra behind it and continually building it up. It is great.
Would you say Jimmy Page had that sort of thing in mind when writing the song? Have you had the honour of meeting the man?
Who knows how he thinks? He is a musical genius. I haven’t been able to meet them. It intrigues a lot of people and I can understand why. It would be great but I am so mortified about actually performing the music the way it should be that I don’t think about meeting them. I haven’t got the luxury of thinking about these things. I know it sounds boring but when I have a gig in front of me, all I think about is preparing properly and doing it justice. The people that come to see Led Zeppelin, love their music and that might include jazz, funk, blues based rock and folk because Led Zeppelin was into everything; it had all these elements. So, you’re usually playing to music aficionados. I am sure there are some that come along because they want to see that quintessential rock star thing with thrusting pelvis and flowing hair but it is not the majority of our audience. Our audience wants to be entertained and have the music played as it is. I’ve been doing this for 30 years so am acutely aware of this and in 30 years, it only gets harder so I keep working it. If most people met [the remaining members of] Led Zeppelin, they’d thank them for the music, their contribution and a wonderful career but that goes without saying. If I did meet them, I’d thank them for putting food on my table and a roof over my head for 30 years; ‘people can say how great you are as musicians but you’ve actually looked after my wellbeing – I am in debt to you’. That is what I think of them.
The re-issues of the back catalogue unearthed heaps of unreleased material, live performances and various re-mixes. Have you thought to weave that into the Led Zeppelin Masters show?
Good point. The problem is that it is not that easy. As a band we can by learning it on the weekend at practise or sound check and then do it. But with an orchestra, you cannot do it as quickly as it has to be written out and rehearsed with 35 people. That is not to say we cannot do that. We probably will look at a piece and alter it for next time. That can be done and is actually a good idea. I might plagiarise your idea there. Ha ha.
When and what was it about Led Zeppelin that hooked you into them way back in the day?
The first time I heard ‘Black Dog’ was when I was about twelve years old and I completely freaked out. I thought, ‘This is it, it doesn’t get any better’. We didn’t have a record player in the house. I heard it off a reel-to-reel recorded from a transistor radio by my older brother. Then I heard Led Zeppelin III album all the way through. I was young and not really aware of critics or rock mags. It was a long time ago, say 1973 or thereabouts. I had no idea but it was absolutely panned by the critics. I loved the album’s diversity. It had ‘That’s the Way’ which could have been a Joni Mitchell styled song, ‘Immigrant Song’ which could have been say Black Sabbath and ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, which is just straight out blues. Also, ‘Out on the Tiles’ [sings riffs] had a real swing band and riffs kind of feel which was amazing. When I heard Led Zeppelin III, I thought anything can be done in rock and roll; there are no rules. If you look at rock history and pop culture, record companies used to talk about band direction. Back in the 70’s and 80’s it was all about that. Led Zeppelin went their own way thanks very much and snubbed it. I unconsciously followed that path and wrote all sorts of music. Back in the day, if I met with record people or people who were advising about album I might present to record companies, they would tell me. It was too diverse or it lacks direction. Ha ha, excellent. I loved that. Of course, I never got an album of my own put out. It is a funny thing. Led Zeppelin was able to do whatever they wanted.
Well, if you have a guitarist like Jimmy Page and drummer like John Bonham in your ranks, you can do what you like to some extent, I’d imagine.
Absolutely. John Bonham; has there been a better rock drummer since?
There are technical marvels but that groove aspect John Bonham had to his drumming style was rare and probably defined Led Zeppelin’s sound.
John Bonham had this swing feel which is essentially jazz but also had that hit of a sledge hammer and when he hit, it stayed hit, as it were. He was able to swing and be powerful. It was like a Ferrari going at 100 mph but turning around witches’ hats. He just had incredible skill.
Zep Boys has Tzan Niko on guitar and Warwick Cheatle on bass. So, who’s doing John Bonham’s drum parts for the show?
Our drummer is Bradley Polain. Guess what, he grew up in a jazz family. His mother was a jazz pianist. His father was a jazz drummer and horn player. His brother is a jazz arranging artist. So he grew up in a family around traditional jazz and other styles of jazz. The first time he heard Led Zeppelin was on cassette and yes, he went to the dark side. Ha.