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Jason Bonham announces 'Led Zeppelin Experience,' even as female singers attempt their own tributes

May 17, 2010 |  7:58 am

On Monday, Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, announced details (well, kind of) of his upcoming tribute tour, called "Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience." The string of shows, the specifics of which have yet to be announced, will feature Bonham the younger -- who drummed with Led Zeppelin at their final show at London's O2 Arena in 2007 -- performing the classic rock band's greatest hits with a group of musicians to be announced. Presumably this band will not feature Robert Plant, Jimmy Page or John Paul Jones.

According to the announcement, the tour is tied to the 30th anniversary of John Bonham's death and Jason will be performing 30 shows on the tour, one for each year his dad has been gone. The shows will feature home movies and photographs from the son's collection.

It's a dangerous prospect, covering an iconic band like Led Zep, but the announcement is coming at an interesting moment. The spring has seen the arrival of three intriguing (for different reasons) covers of classic Zeppelin songs, all by women, none of whom sound remotely like Robert Plant. R&B singer Mary J. Blige just covered two songs; Bettye LaVette adapted one on her new album of rock cover songs; and 16-year-old jazz singer Nikki Yanofsky put a Led Zep rocker within a medley with "Sunny Side of the Street." 

B003A4IFDW Here's a rundown:

Mary J. Blige, "Stairway to Heaven" and "Whole Lotta Love"

Mary J. Blige teamed up with an odd mix-and-match band to create her two covers: Fretboard gymnast Steve Vai, who never met a lick he didn't find incredibly tasty, tackles the guitar parts; "American Idol" judge and longtime session bassist Randy Jackson does the John Paul Jones parts; and Blink 182's Travis Barker does the drumming. 

Amid all that talent, though, we get something sadly, tragically flat. But then, this is "Stairway to Heaven."

If it were possible to "cover protect" a song in the way that one "copy protects" a digital file from replication, it'd be a good idea to do that with Led Zeppelin's most famous song. Unless an artist is willing to bend the composition, twist it like a clown balloon into something wild and surprising, it's tough to take this version of Zeppelin's silliest (and awesomest) song seriously. And Blige, who has a voice as sturdy as Plant's, merely follows the original vocal along the tracks, never really making it her own. Where we'd hope for a little rhythm in the opening ballad part of the song, it's instead a nearly note-by-note replication. Throughout the song, in fact, all we get is a copy, not an adaptation.

Her take on "Whole Lotta Love" is even more of a problem, mostly because it doesn't really feel like she's trying. Even in the bridge, when the sound collapses and Mary does a little growl, it's not convincing, and when the song resumes with a Vai-esque guitar run over a basic trance beat, well, the song falls apart. And Barker's drumming, which normally contains a few surprising fills along the way, is basic, bland and totally un-funky.

Indeed, maybe that's the problem with Blige covering Zep: we want her to add the funk, or at least the rhythm to go along with the blues. But for the most part, she doesn't. And somebody needs to file a restraining order keeping Mary J. Blige away from Vai. This combination is not something that anyone expected, nor is it something anyone should endorse.

Nikki Yanofsky, "Fool in the Rain/Sunny Side of the Street"

Here's a weird idea: Sixteen-year-old standards/pop vocalist Nikki Janofsky, on her praised new self-titled album, covers the best song on "In Through the Out Door" -- with a shuffle-step beat, a big brass section and a lot of swing. Well, she kind of covers it.

The song begins with the classic Zep riff, but when Yanofsky starts singing, she's doing the words to the  American show tune "Sunny Side of the Street." Strange, yes, but it works within that oddball context. But there's a problem.

After getting through "Sunny," one would expect that she'd move into the lyrics of "Fool in the Rain." But aside from a little tease at the beginning, and a musical bed that quotes the melody at every opportunity, Yanofsky never actually sings the song. Instead, it's a like some weird mash-up. She never resolves the "Fool in the Rain" lyric, never even goes there except in the opening 45 seconds of the song before falling into "Sunny Side of the Street." That lack of resolution is incredibly frustrating.

Bettye LaVette, "All My Love"

On classic R&B belter Bettye LaVette's new album, "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook," she covers, among others, Elton John, the Who, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, the Rolling Stones and, yes, Led Zeppelin. And it's a beautiful thing, especially "All My Love," which she harnesses to create a slow-burning ode to love.

The best part about LaVette's covers is her phrasing; where Mary J. moves along paths that Plant carved, the Detroit-bred LaVette goes way into the wilderness. You never know where a Bettye run's going to land. She can start a lyric at one end of an octave and do a vocal run that spins, skips and twirls like a gymnast on a balance beam. (Her version of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" is a classic in the making.)

Musically, the song remains similar to the original, but there is absolutely no mistaking that this is a cover, and that takes guts and will to pull off.

Perhaps, when Jason Bonham is deciding who should be singing in his "Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience," he'll follow our advice and hire LaVette. Not that she'd accept the offer; if there's one thing we know about her, she's not likely to go where others suggest.

-- Randall Roberts

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