In 2004, Steph Paynes didn’t know that she would be talking about her band Lez Zeppelin, which pays tribute to the music of Led Zeppelin, nearly a decade later.
“I just wanted to play some Zeppelin for fun nearly ten years ago,” she laughs. “I got more than I bargained for.”
That’s for sure. Not just a popular live touring act, Lez Zeppelin’s history has seen them release two albums, they’re at work on a third, and they’re also planning something big for the future, of which Paynes will only say “It’s a very cool idea and basically encapsulates everything we’ve been working toward in its own way.”
But perhaps even more notable is that they’ve garnered the seal of approval from the surviving members of the legendary British group, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones.
“They love it,” said Paynes. “When I first began the band, I wasn’t sure. I was a little worried that the guys would look at the name Lez Zeppelin and they would get all upset about it or not like the concept. But I thought that if they had any sense of humor and if they could understand that we’re doing this with the greatest respect and love, which is why I did it in the first place, it’s an uncontestable thing that when we get up there and play, it’s out of pure passion and love for the music and respect for it. And I figured if they don’t like that, then maybe I don’t even want to be doing this. But I had faith that they would, and of course they did. They all know about the band, and I’ve met them all now, and I’ve had the most wonderful encounters with them.”
Paynes, Lez Zeppelin’s guitarist, even admits to keeping cool when meeting her counterpart, Mr. Page.
“Maybe I was in a state of shock, I don’t know,” she said. “But I was actually very present and we had the greatest conversation. We hit it off.”
Hitting the Highline Ballroom in New York City this Saturday, June 1, for a show they’re calling “Your Tune is Gonna Come” because the set list will consist of songs fans request on Facebook, Lez Zep (which consists of Paynes, Megan Thomas (bass), Shannon Conley (vocals), and Leesa Harrington-Squyres (drums)) continues to hit a chord with people, and not just because they pull off the music of their heroes like no other.
“It’s not just the music that’s so compelling, but the concept itself of women playing it is also really, really interesting,” admits Paynes. “Much more than I even realized initially. I think that has expanded the horizon and led to lots of interesting things.”
So why Zeppelin, and not The Who, The Rolling Stones, or any other act from that era?
“For me, it was that thing that differentiates really good art from a bunch of really mediocre things, and I think that when it really comes down to it, it is all about the subtleties and that light and shade, and the dynamics and the diversity,” said Paynes. “It’s the silence between the notes, as well as the notes. And it sounds so simple and so obvious, but it’s really lost on most people, and unfortunately it’s lost on most of what followed them that has since been coined heavy metal, at least in my opinion. Because I think that what that genre ended up being was more like one or two colors instead of the entire palette. And I think Led Zeppelin were that sophisticated musically. And that’s what escaped the critics somehow. They just weren’t listening.”
Eventually they caught on, and in an ironic twist, Lez Zeppelin has been a favorite of critics, likely because they’re not using the whole tribute thing as a shtick. And if you’re a kid who shows up to one of their shows having never heard the original band, odds are that you’re going to go back to iTunes or Amazon and learn something about one of hard rock’s seminal groups.
“It always amazes me, but yes, that does happen,” she said. “It’s like getting something second hand in a weird sort of way. When you listen to Led Zeppelin, you then go back and listen to Robert Johnson. A lot of those people never heard that. So for them, it’s kind of the same effect. You’ll sometimes get people who just really are not familiar with Led Zeppelin. The band ended (with the death of John Bonham in 1980) over 30 years ago, and when you think about it, it’s kind of scary. That’s a whole lifetime for a lot of people in our audience.”
And these days, the audience is mixed, with even more women showing up and appreciating the music of a band that injected more than its fair share of testosterone into their tunes.
“I don’t want to generalize, but we do tend to get women sometimes who never liked Led Zeppelin so much, and really love it with girls singing it and playing it,” said Paynes, who admittedly didn’t live and breathe the group as a kid like so many did.
“I sort of went back to Led Zeppelin,” she said. “I knew them but I didn’t really follow the band as a kid much. But when I went back to it later in the late 90s, I was playing in a lot of rock bands myself and had done a lot of different things. Against the backdrop of what was being touted as so brilliant, you put on a Led Zeppelin record and I was like ‘who are you kidding?’ This is just so much better. And I mean that. I was so struck by it, 20 years after the demise of the group.”
And nearly ten years after Lez Zeppelin formed, they’re still going strong, and when that first chord hits, it may as well be 1975 in 2013.
“It is dreamlike in a way, but at the same time, it’s the most incredible state of presence,” said Paynes. “When you’re doing it in a way whereby you’re at the point where you have it down to a certain extent, when you’re just in the moment and not worrying about which chord comes next, it becomes a complete expression. It’s the past, but also the present.”
Lez Zeppelin plays the Highline Ballroom in New York City on Saturday, June 1. For tickets, click here
To make a song request for Saturday’s show, click here