photo by Genny Wynn
by Liza Mitchell
Putting together an epic, 30-state concert tour is no easy feat. Creating an appropriate homage to celebrate the most innovative and revered rock ‘n roll bands to ever grace a stage is a bit more daunting. Particularly when the drummer of said band is widely considered to be the best of the best – and he is your dad.
Jason Bonham, son of the legendary John “Bonzo” Bonham of Led Zeppelin, is feeling up to the task. The younger Bonham is staging an elaborate tribute to the band that broke down barriers and established itself as a force to be reckoned with.
The Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience is a live concert event featuring classics and rarities from the vast Zeppelin catalog, interspersed with never-before-seen video footage of the Bonham and the Led Zeppelin families and narrated by Bonham.
“I started finding stuff I’d never seen before,” Bonham said in a recent telephone interview in between tour stops. The Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience pulls into Jacksonville Saturday at the Florida Theatre.
“It’s an emotional journey through the music of Led Zeppelin. There are clips of not only me as a child but my dad as a child. There’s an element to this that’s bigger than me. It’s very special. From the moment the show starts, you’ll get it.”
The Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience is a delicious blend of early Zeppelin tracks from the first two records and fan favorites spanning the band‘s storied career. Lesser know tracks from such under-rated gems as the “Presence” LP and other rarities round out the spectacle in sound but the visual accompaniments will prove a sight to behold. Bonham’s capable and emotional narration help weave a story of a legacy, woven into a rich tapestry of history and family.
“All in all, the songs are what mean the most to me and what means the most to the fans,” Bonham said. “I’m throwing my name on the marquee so I evaluate what needs to come across. No two nights are the same but there are certain songs that stay.”
Bonham is in a complicated position, balancing precariously, at times, between the roles of son, father, artist and fan. The hats aren’t interchangeable but the transition from one designation to the next is seamless and organic.
As a Led Zeppelin fan, Bonham’s personal favorite song is the haunting “Kashmir” from the band’s 1975 double-album release “Physical Graffiti.”
“I love the reaction and the vibe of Kashmir,” he said. “I love the power and the majesty that it has.”
When asked, Bonham is hard-pressed to identify a band, past or present, that matches the power and intensity of Led Zeppelin. Similarities with their peers are often limited to logistics.
“There’s a lot of great bands for a lot of different reasons. It’s really comparing apples and oranges and pears. A lot of great bands came from that time. When you think of Led Zeppelin along with The Stones and The Who, their common ground was England. Zeppelin had the English roots combined with American blues. To be that innovative and take risks, they were one of a kind.”
Bonham’s own Led Zeppelin Experience is one that he admits he was hesitant to undertake. He famously performed with the remaining members of the band in 2002 and again in 2007, sharing the stage and the songs with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
Sitting in his father’s place with his band of brothers was exhilarating and strangely familiar. Going it alone was uncharted territory and Bonham had his reservations.
“I was not sure at all,” he said. “I realized after seeing a Beatles tribute show that there was a different way to do it, using screens and telling a story. I said ‘I get it’. I’ve been very hands on, down to what the singer wears. I’m a bit of a control freak. I’d rather blame myself than anybody else.”
Reviews of the JBLZE applaud Bonham’s efforts and encourage him to continue sharing his stories and his interpretation of the Zeppelin legacy with the fans. Many were just teenagers, waiting in line for days to catch a glimpse of famous foursome. Those same fans are coming back to reclaim that glory or share the Led Zeppelin Experience with their children.
Others are fans of the music who’ve clamored at the chance to finally experience the music of Led Zeppelin performed live. In any case, the outpouring of love, respect and adoration for the band and the man Bonham remembers simply as “Dad” is overwhelming.
Bonham recalls meeting a group of fans who camped for days to see Led Zeppelin before the horrifying news was announced that the great Bonzo was gone. Fast forward a few decades, and these same fans captured the lost opportunity and the chance to tell their story.
“They said they waited 30 years to get this close to seeing Led Zeppelin,” he said, choking up as the emotion rose to surface. “This is not about me. It’s about how much they enjoy it. If they can escape one moment and be reminded of a time before, that’s very special. It’s been wonderful. It’s an amazing journey.”
Performing the sacred music that John Bonham helped cement into the annuls of rock history was not always in the cards for the young Bonham. Just 14 when he lost his famous father, Bonham was just two years shy of realizing his dream as a pro motocross rider on the junior circuit in England where he was ranked second in his division.
“I chose sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll,” laughed Bonham, who mused that he never once broke a bone while racing around the dirt tracks. Since, he’s broken his hand – twice – and is all too familiar with the pitfalls that are born from self-destruction.
It would be impossible to describe Bonham’s childhood as one without music. He appeared as a young child playing the drums in a 1970 clip featured in the film ‘”The Song Remains the Same”. Bonham was also a big fan of The Police and managed to wrangle back stage access, thanks to his dad’s connections.
“I was 13 and The Police were the first band I was really into, much to my dad‘s dismay I think,” he said. “He put me on his shoulders the whole show. He got me back stage and I got to meet Stewart Copeland. It was pretty cool.”
Bonham also recalls speeding with his dad in a brand new Porsche en route to a Led zeppelin sound check. The elder statesman of rock caught the attention of the other police. John Bonham explained who he was and dodged a traffic ticket, after giving the officer two tickets for that night’s show.
“[The officer] said ‘You gonna do ‘Trampled Under Foot’? This is the first time I’ve ever seen Led Zeppelin play’ My dad said ‘yeah’!”
John Bonham’s death on September, 25, 1980 at 32 years old left his teenage son and young daughter without a father. It left the rock and roll community without a hero. Led Zeppelin disbanded after Bonham’s death, announcing that the band would no longer continue without its lost brother, out of respect for Bonham and his family.
“You can imagine. My hero was gone. I was never going to see him again. I didn’t understand it. As a kid, you always think they are going to come back through that door,” Bonham said, “I know how much I meant to him. I get comfort from the fans and their huge commitment to Led Zeppelin. Their legacy, the respect, to mean something to someone else and to make them smile, that’s got to be a good thing. There is an element to this that’s bigger than me.”
There is little doubt that Bonham has signed on to something magnificent. He is keenly aware of the magic of Led Zeppelin and he finds himself in it’s awesome embrace night after night. After so many years, he is finally able to shoulder both the crushing weight of the band’s legacy and the love and respect of a son for his father.
“I don’t cry as much as I did at the start of the tour. Now I kind of know what to expect. After the first few shows, it built up and it got bigger and bigger to the point that it was hard to comprehend. I was an emotional wreck. At one point I think I collapsed on stage,” Bonham said.
“The energy and the amount of love I feel when someone in the crowd yells ‘We love you, Jason’ is such an intimate thing. They start chanting and they don’t stop. Those moments are unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.”