© Sayre Berman/Corbis
Jason Bonham is currently finishing up a series of dates across the US as part of his Led Zeppelin Experience tour. Led Zeppelin author, historian and music journalist Ritchie Yorke checked in with Jason on the road...
Jason, the unveiling of the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience must represent a case of your destiny coming to life?
"I wouldn't say it's my destiny, or would I? I feel that it was my destiny to play with Led Zeppelin, and of course I had the chance and I did it to my best ability. The show was critically acclaimed and fantastic. When I agreed to do (JBLZE), I never imagined in my wildest dreams how it would evolve and become a different event every night. It is hugely emotional, but every night is different. The crowd reaction brings a different emotion, a different feeling. It's been unbelievable. I never saw this as my destiny, but it seems to have taken a role, a huge part of my life, and it means so much to the fans.
"I've gotten to talk to a few of the fans that touched me. A couple of guys presented a picture to me - they were French Canadians from Montreal - and in broken English he told me he spent five days sleeping with his brother outside of the Montreal Forum in 1980 to get Led Zeppelin tickets. When he was at the gates, he was told 'Sorry the show isn't going to happen, John Bonham died this morning'. He broke down and said he had waited thirty years to be here. I said, 'Don't put that pressure on me', and he said, 'I feel like this is the closest I will ever get to Led Zeppelin.' That is one of those things that I now say to the fans every night, if I ever had a doubt about whether I should do this or not - every night you take it away from me."
What would you say are some of the musical highlights of this stunning two-hour spectacular that you are now doing?
"Some of the highlights for me are that we are now playing three hours. I'm not sure I like the intermission. If it were up to me I would wipe that out and add more songs. I think fans would want it. I was asked to cut the show down during rehearsals, but once the powers that be went away I added everything back in. It's just hard to keep those songs out. We recently added 'How Many More Times', 'Over The Hills And Far Way', and 'Good Times, Bad Times' is in the show now. 'Rover' we did the other night, 'Sick Again', 'Hearts From Nowhere', we kind of change it up. Somebody printed one of the set lists so that was it. I didn't want anyone to know what they were coming to see. We have the main structure of the show with a few surprises."
Was it difficult in the first stages picking your repertoire and getting your list together?
"Picking the set list wasn't the toughest thing. It was narrowing it down to a two-hour period, because it's not two hours. That was the hardest thing. They count the intermission as part of the two hours. It's the hardest thing to cut Zeppelin down. I want to represent every period and every album to the best of my ability and I think every album deserves to be part of it."
Obviously, but you could be out there all night.
"I know we all have our favourites, but even if we did two songs from every album it would still be too long. And there's still stuff I would like to explore playing live that the boys didn't ever do live. Things from Coda which were phenomenal. Songs like 'Poor Time' and the acoustic side of things. We haven't even touched the acoustic Zeppelin yet. There are so many great songs - 'Tangerine'.
It's a great body of work.
"I'm almost ready to do Zeppelin acoustic during intermission."
Which of the songs would you say, after a dozen shows, work best?
"They love 'You're Time Is Gonna Come' which they get after I do my little speech downstage. That one goes down really well. 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' gets a standing ovation every night. The turning point for me is after we do 'Lemon Song'. After that everyone is generally up on their feet. After the break, 'When the Levee Breaks' gets a huge response with the way we start it. I get the crowd to go '1, 2, 3 Bonzo' and then the drums kick in and I interact with Dad and join in with him. As much as I say it's not theatrical, I do take a little bit of pantomime into my performance. As Dad always said, I'm very much like my Mom sometimes."
We can see it in some of the home movies. I like the way showing the home movies adds to the intimacy of the experience. Of you and your dad messing around, playing together adds a feeling you never get in shows.
"I realised the other day, Dad's the kid and I'm the old man playing with him. When we do 'Moby Dick' together, I'm older than him and it's the strangest thing in the world because he's still the master and that's the classic. It's like the pupil overtook the teacher in age, but he's still there - he's still kicking butt. So that has been evolving and getting better every night, because I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants till he comes in. I'm not really keen on drum solos. When your Dad was the creator of 'Moby Dick' you kind of steer clear of getting compared in a solo-ing aspect. For me soloing is still new and I had to wing it a bit till I played a few times, but that has got better and better and is now working out fantastically."
The show seems to go to another level when there's that split screen of you and your Dad. It just gives it a new bond and intimacy that I think is so special.
"Yes that works very well."
People are obviously bound to compare you and this band with the original Led Zeppelin. What I found interesting is that with the level of production you have taken the live performance of these songs to a whole new level. The lights, the sound, the visuals. The overall vibe of the show has established a whole new set of standards.
"While we are trying to emulate the greatest band in the world, we always remember that they're the creators. We just have a great mass of material to look over and play and emulate in some way. I love listening to different versions and imagining what Dad would do on those and try to get that vibe and feel. As far as lights and PA systems go, when you look back at early pictures there were two mics on Dad's drum kit. There's a vocal PA and nothing else, phenomenal really. We probably have a system now that doubles what they had in those days."
The increases in technology obviously play out in the show. It must be particularly gratifying for you that in the 30th anniversary of your Dad's passing you can offer this up there, to him, in the universe.
"As I said from the start, I never imagined doing this or more importantly getting the response I've been getting. I did an interview yesterday and it got quite deep and intimate. We talked about my son and now more emotions have been going on in my head - I feel more connected to Dad and I never realised that when I'm playing I'm at my happiest and somebody said it's because you feel closer to him, and I do, I thought about it and, well, that epiphany is an evolution."
And I'm sure it will continue to, from this tour and into the future - whatever that may be.
"My Mom was supposed to come tonight. I sent her a few clips so she could prepare herself. I told her, 'I don't think you are ready for what you're gonna see', and she kind of broke down. I sent her two clips from Montréal, filmed from the audience and you can hear the crowd singing along to 'Kashmir' from start to finish. She said, 'I'm not ready for this, I promise I will come to a show, but I will wait and come to L.A, I just feel this is a bit much for me to take in right now'. She also said, 'Dad would be so proud, you've devoted your entire life to him', and then she got quite upset and said — and this was the first time she's ever spoken badly about Dad - 'what a b**tard for doing this to us', and I said, 'oh dear, here we go', and she really has never spoken a bad word about Dad. I told her she could have moved on a long time ago, so it's been a roller coaster show on a personal level as well."
I think this is a chance for you to move up to another level.
"As I say, I don't know how I would feel if I were doing this every night and we'd been getting reviews that were slagging us off. I don't know how it would have felt, but because it's been all positive. All around I feel ok and that we are doing the right thing. It's been accepted by everyone."
Montréal was a special show; so far on the tour it was the culmination of what you are trying to do - both from the audience and as a band working together.
"The audience pulled the performance out of the band. We went with their enthusiasm and we got into it. We were bombastic and going nuts. We were totally taken on an emotional roller coaster vibe with them. There were no seats. It had more of a club atmosphere, a large club, standing room only. It was also the first night we added a non-LZ song. I decided to tip my hat to Neil Peart, and at the end of 'Whole Lotta Love' we went straight in to Rush's 'Tom Sawyer'. Neil was the next guy I got into after Dad died. I bought 2112 on vinyl and everyone was saying, 'this guy is the shit, you gotta listen to this guy play drums'. And I think after Dad died he won every rock drummer poll and has done since, he really is a phenomenal player. Plays a totally different style than Dad and myself, but I admire anyone that comes along and is a master of his craft. He's had a lot of grief in his life and he pulled through it. Bad things happen to good people unfortunately - and my thoughts are with Neil and I feel he has a wonderful life with his new chosen way and I respect him very highly. Montreal made us think of others; every time we play we research the cities and pick key people from that city to tip our hats to, not only the ones that we were personally close to, but the ones that were important to the people of the town. In Boston we're thinking about doing 'Train Kept A Rollin', because of the Aerosmith connection and Zeppelin used to play it."
Thanks to MSO PR for the interview.