“As you get older and the distance and the time goes away,” said Jason Bonham, “you realize that (Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) might be just people but in reality they are Led Zeppelin.
“I remember saying to those guys in a rehearsal, ‘Do you know who you are? You’re Led Zeppelin!’ They laughed a bit and asked when I became such a fan and my response was, ‘Too late!’ Without realizing it; I had been too close to it at the beginning to notice.”
So said a laughing Bonham as he discussed rehearsing with Plant, Page and Jones, preparing to take the seat that his revered father John, who died in 1980, had occupied as the drummer of what many consider to be the greatest rock band of all time. Bonham has done so three times: In 1988, 1995 and 2007.
Filling in for his father spawned a new appreciation for his dad’s talent and the band’s place in music history. So much so that between solo projects and stints with artists such as UFO, Paul Rodgers, Foreigner, Heart and currently Sammy Hagar, he assembled the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience, now known as the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Evening. He will bring it to The Music Box at The Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa in Atlantic City, Nov. 23 at 9 p.m., and the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Nov. 29 at 8 p.m.
How does one go about forming the quintessential tribute band while maintaining the authenticity, distinct sound and style of the original? Technology, of course.
“I was told about a site called Virtual Zeppelin, and that’s where I listened to James (vocalist Dylan) and literally was like, ‘No way!’ So I actually flew him down to my house and got him to come and sing, but at the time he was kind of a different guy back then, and I told him, ‘You know, you sound like it but you’re not rock ‘n’ roll enough.’
“About a year later he called me up and we spoke again, and we kicked it off and I never imagined it going past the time we had at the beginning. I thought it’d be maybe a couple of tours, if that. But it was amazing from the moment we started.
“The weirdest thing was that the bass player we had, Michael Devin, got the call from Whitesnake after the first tour and I remember saying to him, ‘Take it, because I might not do this anymore.’ Fortunately, last year, after he found the bass player to replace himself with, a wonderful guy named Dorian Heartsong … Dorian couldn’t do the time last year, so Michael came back for a tour, and then this summer Michael was in Whitesnake, so it was a great fun tour to be had. So finding them all came into place, but the biggest thing is, you’ve got to be a fan, and that’s all it is, really.
“When my guitar player of many, many years, Tony Catania, decided that he wanted to get off and do his own thing, I was kind of like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ Fortunately enough, somebody said to me, ‘You’ve got to give this guy a listen, you’ve got to try him out,’ and it kind of brought a new lease on life to the band. It made us go back to some of the original live stuff from the earlier and different versions of recordings. Jimmy Sakurai is his name; he goes by the name Mr. Jimmy, and he is just phenomenal. Alex Howland on keyboards and guitar, I’ve been very fortunate. These guys are very, very good. We give it 200 percent when we’re up there because I’m representing the family. So I always say that this is the hardest gig that I play.”
Bonham says he times his JBLZE tours in the spring and fall.
“We usually only do around 20 shows around May and 20 shows after Thanksgiving. … I’ve got my other projects with Sammy Hagar and The Circle, so that gives it space. So I’m fortunate. I don’t have a 9 to 5; I still really, really enjoy playing, I feel very lucky that I can do this and pick and choose when we do it. … I mean, there were times when I wasn’t doing anything, so I can’t complain (laughs).”
Being the son of a music icon, especially one as influential as John Bonham, can be a blessing or a curse. When asked if this has ever affected him in any manner, Jason was forthright yet sentimental with his response.
“Maybe in my late 2os, I was just like, ‘Enough already, I know, I know.’ You know, when you kind of want to be your own self, but then you realize that he is the most influential … every drummer I’ve ever asked, every drummer that I’ve ever read about, their Top 3 always has John Bonham in there. … that’s just phenomenal that he had that much influence on the drumming world.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What do you love the most about the show?’ I said, ‘The conversations that I have with my father in my head while I’m playing.’ If I do something pretty good … I mean, I’m playing the gig and I’m saying in my head, ‘Hey, check that one out, dad.’ You didn’t do that one until ZOSO. And then I’ll have a moment where I’m watching him do something in my head and he’ll turn around and say, ‘You didn’t think of that one, did ya?’ ‘Yeah, you’re right, you’ve always been a master. What am I thinking?’
“I try and imagine what he’d be playing like now: That’s kind of where my head goes. I think of the very fundamental fills, the triplets, the iconic stuff that he used, but it’s trying to get his subtleties and his space and just that groove, That is way more my focus now than any fill. His pocket. I was listening to the ‘Song Remains the Same’ version of ‘Dazed and Confused’ and, oh my God, that is such an amazing version live. … I mean, the drum sound and just everything about it. All of the jam sessions within it, and then when they go into ‘If you’re going to San Francisco …,’ the drum groove that dad starts playing with the hi-hat, the hairs on my arm are standing up just talking about it.”
The Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Evening is an outstanding recreation of the music of Led Zeppelin. So how do the three remaining members of the band feel about what he is doing?
“I went to Robert’s show and his keyboard player came up to me and said, ‘You know he watches the clips, don’t ya?’ He’ll never tell you himself and he always asks the fans, ‘Did anyone see Jason’s show last week?’ Apparently Robert said one night, ‘If you want to hear how it sounded back in the day, you go see Jason’s band, and if you want to hear how it sounds now, you come and see me.’ That was the greatest compliment that I’ve ever been given. I haven’t heard anything from the others, but there’s a lot of bands out there. It’d be terrible if they thought it was wrong when there’s how many other bands out there doing it …
“We did an interview one time and the DJ tried to get Robert to react to me doing it. And in the end, it bit the DJ in the ass because Robert turned around and said, ‘Excuse me, he’s John’s son, do you understand that? He is the best living drummer that can play that music and he does it so well. So why can’t he do that? What is your point?’ I was like, ‘Wow,’ and then he said, ‘It astounds me how much time he puts into what we did such a long time ago, and sometimes I wish he would have his own thing.’ And I had to butt in and I said, ‘But I do, Robert, I have two other bands with original stuff.’ (laughs) And he said, ‘See? He’s ready!’
“Robert and I speak more than anyone else and we call each other every now and again and I try and see him whenever he’s around. There’s big love for that. Jimmy and I, whenever we see each other or any of us see each other, it’s like we had just seen each other the day before. There’s no awkwardness, it’s just pure love and respect.”
With the tour finishing up in December, what will 2019 and beyond bring for the band and Jason himself?
“We’re not too sure yet. I want to give Sammy 100 percent for the new album that we’ve done together, so I’m leaving it pretty open.”
For more about Bonham or the JBLZE, visit jasonbonham.net.