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Jason Bonham & Led Zeppelin’s Living Legacy (Interview)

Written by: Marshall Ward


Though it’s been over three decades since the untimely death of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, at the age of 32, he is still hailed as one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock and roll.

John Bonham’s influence continues to reach new generations – partly through classic Zeppelin recordings, and partly thanks to his son, Jason Bonham, who just kicked off the 2013 Canadian leg of “The Led Zeppelin Experience.”

Accompanied by atmospheric video and mesmerizing lighting effects, the show highlights the unique history Jason Bonham shares with the iconic rock quartet.

Cranking out songs like Babe I’m Gonna Leave YouGoing to California, and All My Love, The Led Zeppelin Experience has been hailed as a stunning rock spectacle and “the next best thing to a live Led Zeppelin show.”

Jason Bonham also played with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones at Led Zeppelin’s “final” show at London’s 02 Arena in 2007, which was filmed and released this past November for a DVD titled Celebration Day.

Just days before Jason Bonham headed north to Canada for a string of shows through February, Rock Cellar Magazine chatted with him at length about The Led Zeppelin Experience, his father’s legacy, and his moving performance of Stairway to Heaven with Heart at the recent Kennedy Center Honors gala.

Rock Cellar Magazine: When the tour started in 2010, wasn’t it only supposed to be 30 dates?

Jason Bonham:  Originally, it was going to be 30 shows for the 30 years my dad’s been gone, but fans keep insisting I do more (laughs). And I’ve had a great relationship with Canada all these years, going all the way back to when my band, Bonham opened for The Cult at Toronto’s SkyDome in ’89.  I never imagined this tour being three years on now, but there are still so many different towns we want to play, and it’s been so much fun really, paying respect to the greatest rock and roll band of all time.

I’ve also been really moved by all the people who have personal stories to share about my dad.  You know, I’ll hear these heartfelt stories from fans who had tickets to the 1980 show in Montreal, which was the first concert that didn’t happen when my father died.  And it’s stories like these, where people in tears are telling us about the concert they never got to see and what John Bonham meant to them, that really touches everyone in the band and inspire us to keep the Led Zeppelin Experience rolling along.

RCM: Tell us about your band.

JB:  The guys are all fans, because what I wanted to do was surround myself with people who loved Zeppelin as much as I did.  Tony Catania, our guitarist has been a friend of mine for a long time, and whenever we’d jam together we’d always talk about doing something down the road like this.  The next person in the puzzle, when putting the band together was our singer James Dylan, who was singing and doing a Zeppelin thing called Virtual Zeppelin, which was basically a website someone turned me onto.  I checked it out and was absolutely amazed by James, and knew right away he was the perfect fit.

It took a little while longer to find a bass player, but we did in Michael Devin, who was then offered the Whitesnake gig.  I said, “You can’t turn down an offer like that,” but he was a wonderful asset to the band, who was then replaced by Dorian Heartsong, who was actually originally a drummer and guitarist.  Then we have the multi-talented Stephen LeBlanc on keyboards, slide guitar, lap steel guitar, who like Dorian is a multi-instrumentalist and a major asset.

We’re all just very huge Zeppelin fans and are really enjoying this time in our lives, as we get to go out on the road and play some of the greatest music ever written.  – Jason Bonham

RCM:  You play everything from Thank You to The Lemon Song to Over the Hills and from Far Away, along with songs Zeppelin rarely played in concert, like Your Time is Gonna Come and Four Sticks.  How do you decide what to play each night?

JB:  I try to represent every album, but there are so many songs to choose from.  I didn’t intentionally go out to find songs that Zeppelin rarely performed live, but rather I wanted to play songs that I thought were important and had to be in the show.  Everything is there for a reason.

Your Time is Gonna Come is in there because it was the first time I ever heard Zeppelin as a child. The keyboard intro terrified me as a kid (laughs), and something like that really sticks in your mind.  And Four Sticks, that title was always the joke because dad really did play that song with four sticks – two in each hand – and that’s why literally the song was called Four Sticks at the time.  I try to use different songs from different periods, from Good Times Bad Times to The Ocean to When the Levee Breaks.

When the Levee Breaks, I don’t know if they ever did that one live, or if they did it was for a very short period of time.  And the key thing for me with that song is, I used to play drums with dad on that one.

RCM: In a sense, you are playing When the Levee Breaks with your dad on tour, thanks to the recorded drum loop you’re using in concert, right?

JB:  Yes, thanks to modern technology, and it just sounds so cool to have the thunder of dad playing behind me, because you can’t really do When the Levee Breaks very well without having John Bonham as the main anchor.  So it’s absolutely wonderful to be able to do that one live.

RCM: How similar is your drum kit to John Bonham’s?

JB: It’s definitely reminiscent of the old man’s, as I basically stick to all the same sizes that dad used.  I’d say it looks a little more like the ’77 John Bonham drum kit, with the Vistalite 14 x 10 inch deep rack, 16 and 18 inch floor toms, a 26 inch bass drum, two crash Zildjian cymbals that are 21 and 22 inch, 14 inch hi-hats, my favorite Ludwig Anniversary snare, and of course the big gong, which looks fantastic (laughs).

RCM: What’s it like playing John Bonham’s famous “Moby Dick” drum solo live?

JB:  It’s the pinnacle point of sheer concentration for myself when performing in concert. The enjoyment part comes a little more towards the end when I know I’m getting through it, but while I’m play I’m just intensely focused on dad’s timing.  I just try to get as close as I can, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  In the end, it’s all very rewarding, though I’ve never been a fan of drum solos.

RCM: So how did you approach it then?

JB:  At first, when we talked about doing Moby Dick, I knew I wanted to do it with dad, to take away the pressure of me trying to perform it alone.  And once we decided to do that [with the loop], that gave me a footprint to go by and inspired me to pull it off.  Now I love performing it because I never got a chance to play Moby Dick with dad when he was alive, and that’s a great enough reason in itself to include it in the set.

RCM:  Your shows often open with songs that Zeppelin opened with on tour, like Rock and Roll and The Immigrant Song. Was that intentional?

JB:  Yes, I always loved how Rock and Roll opened their ’73 shows, or I’ve thought about opening with The Song Remains the Same as they in ’77.  I tend to stick to certain openers they did, like The Immigrant Song which is such a powerful song to open or close a show with, as well.  But we’ll experiment sometimes too, as I opened with Four Sticks at one gig, and everyone’s face in the audience was like, “Huh?!” I think that one was a little too obscure to open the show with for the average fan.

We’ve always got a few up our sleeve that we like to surprise the audiences with, like Achilles Last Stand which we’ve done, and the last time we went out we pulled out Fool in the Rain from In Through the Out Door.  It went down really well as everybody was really into it. We have about 30 to 40 songs that we kind of keep rehearsed, so at any point we can change the mood of the show by either going up or down, and I like to leave it that way as we can surprise people with different songs we pull out.

The internet took any surprise out of the set list you might have at the start of a tour, because once you do one gig, somebody publishes it for the world what you’re doing.  So with that in mind, we like to play havoc with the fans seeking our set lists before the shows (laughs).

RCM: What’s the most obscure Zeppelin song you’ve pulled out?

JB:  I remember the first time we played Toronto in 2010, a guy who runs the Led Zeppelin website who lives in Toronto came down and asked us if we could do Sick Again.  So we added that to the set list that night without telling anybody, and I think it really surprised a lot of people including him, who I guess didn’t think we’d actually play it.

We’ve also done a few other numbers on occasion like The Rain SongOut on the TilesWhat is and What Should Never Be, we sometimes do Dazed and Confused, and on the last leg we pulled out No Quarter.

RCM:  Are there any new additions to the set you’re considering for this leg of the tour?

JB:  We’re still working on the set list, but if anything, I’d like to bring back some of the early blues stuff that we did on the first tour, or a track like You Shook Me, where we do some of the songs from early albums when Zeppelin first went on tour.

I was thinking, the first part of the show could be like an early Zeppelin show where you stay true to the idea that, “If this were 1970, what would they have opened with and what would they do from there?” You know, where you’d get a bit of Train Kept a Rollin’ during Whole Lotta Love, or a piece of Gallows Pole in the Communication Breakdown medley. Whatever we decide to do for this tour, nobody will be disappointed.

I’ve been looking back at when they toured the first two albums, and was reminded of shows like Texas Jam ’69, at that International Pop Festival where Robert says, “Do we have time for one more song?” Then they do a 25-minute version of How Many More Times (laughs). Now that was a phenomenal gig!

RCM: What about In the Evening, the first track on In Through the Out Door – have you ever performed that song?

JB:  I’d love to open a show with that one, as I think that’s a fantastic period in Zeppelin’s career, so perhaps we’ll incorporate that one in down the road.  You never know.

Another thing is, I’d like to have the guys sit down and listen to In My Time of Dying from the London 02 Arena, from when I played with Zeppelin in 2007 (Celebration Day concert).  I was so blown away by that version and was really, really pleased with it that night, so perhaps we can do a version that’s something like that.

RCM: When was the first time you watched the Celebration Day film?

JB:  It was at the premiere in New York, and I watched it with Robert, Jimmy and John Paul.  I was just so pleased that it finally became available because the thing is, it was five years ago, and I remember it being so, so great.  You know, some people I think forgot it even happened (laughs).

Photo by Ross Halfin

But for me, it was an incredible moment, as they had never played a full show ever without John Bonham on drums. So I feel very honored and privileged and overjoyed that they would release a live recording with me on it. It just means a hell of a lot to me, at 46 years old, to have accomplished that.

I feel like that’s it for me, I can hang my hat on that one, as I’ve always wanted to have an album out with Led Zeppelin and my name on it.

RCM:  Was it intimidating sitting in for your father during the “Celebration Day” Led Zeppelin concert?

JB:  It wasn’t until Kashmir, near the end of the set, did I really start feeling relaxed, after playing everything from Black Dog to Trampled Underfoot to Misty Mountain Hop.  That’s the point where I just went for it, rather than trying to replicate every part that dad did.

But I think that concert brought closure to a lot of people.  I was reminded that in some cases, they lost my father as much as I lost him.  And I don’t mind people telling me that.  In fact, I enjoy hearing that and the kind of influence he’s hand on others, especially drummers.

RCM: There’s always been a certain mystique about Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Can you tell us something about who they are, when not in the public eye?

JB:  They are way more normal than you would ever imagine.  I still look at them now with awe, perhaps more now than ever.  But I do get to appreciate them as people, as we’ll sometimes have a moment where I’ve asked them, “Do you fully understand who you are and what you’ve accomplished in this life? Do you realize how important you are to people all over the world?” They’ll just kind of look at me and go, “What? Christ…Shut up will ya!  What are you talking about?” (laughs)

But I think they’re very proud of what they did, as I speak to Robert quite regularly and we talk about music, life, kids and family, and it makes him all the more normal to me.  But I really can’t say if they understand, when I tell them, “You are as important to the world as Lennon and McCartney ever were, without a shadow of doubt.”

RCM: You feel Led Zeppelin had as indelible an impact on the history of rock and roll as The Beatles?

Yes, when my dad was playing with them, they were the greatest band of all time. In fact, I would say Led Zeppelin are more popular now than they were back in the ’70s.

They’ve grown with age and they’re bigger than ever, and I just feel so special to be part of their legacy, because dad really had no idea.  I mean, he knew he was good, but if you look back to what he did back then compared to now, and how far-reaching their influence is, you can truly see the legend of Led Zeppelin. Like The Beatles, without Led Zeppelin, the music industry would not be the same without them.  It’s just one of those things where there will never, ever be another.

RCM:  Let’s talk about that Heart Stairway to Heaven gig – the recent Kennedy Center Honors gala, honoring Led Zeppelin this past December. It is arguably the most rocking and moving live performance of the past year. How did that come about?

JB:  It was all very hush-hush, when I was contacted by the Kennedy Center -who wanted to surprise Robert, Jimmy and John Paul who would be in attendance.  I knew they were going to be honored, so I said, “Well, how do you want to do it?” and they said, “We want you to play Stairway to Heaven.”  And I was like, “Wow! Talk about a surprise!”  So we were discussing different people and I said, “Have you got anyone in mind?” and the guy said, “Well, who do you think would be fantastic to play with?” as they tell me at that point that Foo Fighters are going to do something, along with Lenny Kravitz.

RCM: Both of which are big Led Zeppelin fans, right?

JB:  Oh yeah, and that’s why it was so cool because it was all very honest.  I mean, I’ve known for years that Lenny is a huge Zep fan, and Dave Grohl is a big Bonham fan, so everyone was there for a reason.

And when I said, “Well, playing with the two girls – Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart would be fantastic, because they really adore Zeppelin.” And they said, “Well that’s good, because that’s who we had in mind!”

RCM: How did everyone manage to keep it a surprise from Plant, Page, and Jones?

JB:  I was snuck in and was hiding out with my son and my wife, so nobody knew we were there except the organizers and the band knew, but not Robert, Jimmy or John Paul.

It almost got out of the bag, though, as I was standing around and Dave Grohl goes, “Nobody’s supposed to know you’re here, right?” And I said, “Yeah,” and Dave goes, “Quick, jump behind the couch then!”  So I did, just a second before John Paul walks in the room.  Amazingly, I dived over the couch and hid behind it just in time (laughs). It was a pretty funny sight, me hiding behind a couch as John Paul and Dave stood there talking.  Almost blew the surprise!

RCM: Did you have an opportunity to rehearse Stairway to Heaven with Heart beforehand?

JB: I did, as we went through it about four times before the actual event.

RCM: So what was that like, performing for Plant, Page, and Jones along with everyone else at this highly prestigious ceremony?

JB:  It was a wonderful thing. When I watch it now and see the reaction on their faces.  Robert was so overwhelmed.  Afterwards he just sat with me and told me that at one point during the concert, before we performed, he turned to Jimmy and went, “Jason should be here.  Jason should really be hear experiencing this with us.”  And the next thing you know, I walked on stage and the feeling was just incredible.  Robert stood up applauding, with this huge smile on his face, and it was like, “Ahhhhhh!” as he pointed at me.  It was tremendous.

RCM: What was it like having that amazing gospel choir backing you?

JB:  From where I was, I actually couldn’t hear the choir at all, but I’ve heard it now watching it back on television and it’s so fantastic.  When you take on something like Stairway to Heaven, it’s very risky, as I’ve always felt it’s like touching a masterpiece.

But I haven’t read anything but great comments about the performance.  Heart was fantastic, I think the band was fantastic, and to be able to play with Lou (Marini), the sax player who was with the Blues Brothers, and that choir was just phenomenal.  The song just kept building, and got bigger and bigger and bigger.

RCM: Viewing the footage, it’s evident how emotionally engaged Plant, Page and Jones were throughout that performance…

JB:  Oh yeah, seeing it now gives me goosebumps.  Everything about it, from the tears in Robert’s eyes to seeing Jimmy and John Paul grooving, it gets me really choked up just talking about it.

I have to tell you, when I see that I can’t help thinking, John, you idiot, why did you have to leave us?  Why did that night have to happen?  You should be here to appreciate this.  Look what you’ve accomplished.
The music they created is timeless – and that’s one of the reasons I keeping doing the Led Zeppelin Experience.  But another reason is the fact that when my dad was alive, I never got to tell my father what an incredible influence he had on me, and just how great he truly was.

Because of my father, I’ve had the opportunity to play drums, make music, and carve out this amazing life for myself. But I always say, he’s a tough act to follow.

 

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