Interview by Danny Coleman
“As you get older and the distance and the time goes away, you realize that they 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 Jason Bonham as he discussed those first rehearsals with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones; preparing to take the seat his revered father John had occupied as the drummer of whom many consider to be the greatest rock band of all time, Led Zeppelin. On this occasion it was for a reunion of the super group, a reunion which garnered much attention and had even a young Jason seemingly pinching himself as he soaked in his role in this momentous event.
Performing as a member of Led Zeppelin and filling in for his father who is considered to be one of the greatest drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history spawned an entire 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 currentlySammy Hagar; he assembled the, “Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience,” now known as the, “Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Evening” and Jason will be bringing it all to The Music Box inside The Borgata Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ on November 23 for a 9 p.m. show.
So how does one go about forming the quintessential tribute band while maintaining the authenticity, distinct sound and style of the original? Technology of course and Jason used exactly that to recruit the members of the group.
“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, he said with slight laugh.“Literally 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 really 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.”
With what appears to be a lengthy touring schedule at hand, Bonham explained that it’s not as large as one might think; timing his tours with the “JBLZE” around the spring and fall.
“We don’t work as much as people would think. I’m very fortunate, if anything, since we’ve added those summer shows; we usually only do around 20 shows around May and 20 shows after Thanksgiving, that’s what we usually do. So 40 shows out of the year, if that’s all I’m working well that’s OK. I’ve got my other projects with Sammy Hagar and The Circleso that gives it space, so I’m fortunate. I don’t have a nine to five, I still really, really enjoy playing, I feel very lucky that I can do this and pick and choose when we do it. So it might look like we’re always working and sometimes it feels like it and just lately I had two weeks off and when Sammy is working and wants to work roughly at the same time; it’s like” and as if to elaborate yet leave the thought open-ended he continued after a short pause . “I literally did a festival in Mexico in Monterrey with Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake, Wolfmother, The Circle and Garbage which was great fun and after that I flew to Jacksonville to start rehearsals for this tour with JBLZE and we’ll work into December and have a few weeks off and then Sammy has started to add shows in January because we’ve got a new album coming out. Yeah, 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 20’s; I was just like, enough already, I know, I know,” he explained. 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 three always has John Bonham in there. The other two drummers might change but everybody I’ve ever asked and most drummers I’ve ever read about say this and 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? It’s kind of cool to have those kind of moments, like when I’ll do something from, “Presence” in a, “Led Zeppelin II” song and I think, see I did that in a “Led Zeppelin II” song and you didn’t even think of it until, “Presence” (laughs). 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. That to me is, that is it; drop the mic. 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 Jason 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, it’d be horrible to think that. 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 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?
“The Evening,” as we call it now will always have a place in my heart and passion but as far as planning next year; 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. I’m sure we’ll do our regular 20 or 40 shows next year and usually I like touring this time of year, the winter time and I like touring in May. So if something happens in between in the summer; there’s talk of “JBLZE” going out with another act, a very big act and if that comes to play then I’ll be a very happy man. As far as anything planned now, we’re going to finish the shows this winter and then I’ll be promoting the new, “Circle” album with Sam and as I said, don’t be sad, I’ll still be doing 20 to 40 shows sometime next year.”
Fans of Led Zeppelin will enjoy what Bonham has assembled as the music is timeless. Generation after generation has discovered and been influenced by the band as their legacy lives on and will for generations to come; to discover more about Jason Bonham, The “JBLZE” or obtain tickets to the remaining shows; please visit www.jasonbonham.net.
Danny Coleman (Danny Coleman is a veteran musician and writer from central New Jersey. He hosts a weekly radio program entitled “Rock On Radio” airing Sunday evenings at 10 p.m. EST on multiple internet radio outlets where he features indie/original bands and solo artists.)