In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders to shed some light on how the pop culture sausage gets made. In this installment, we talk to the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin cover band Led Zeppelin 2.
Tribute bands have been around ever since savvy musicians figured out that there were millions of people who were never going to see The Beatles at Shea Stadium or Elvis in Vegas. For decades, if the band you loved had broken up or wasn’t touring right at that moment, you could only enjoy the onstage antics of Pink Fraud, the Wholigans, or Super Diamond. Now with YouTube at our fingertips, you would think that the tribute act days may be behind us, but there is still an audience for classic-band-adjacent live shows. Case in point: the thriving Led Zeppelin 2.
Zep2 started as a lark, when some guys from the Chicago alt-band-heyday of the ’90s pulled a tribute act together for Halloween. Then a wedding. Then more and more gigs. The band has recently returned from a tour that included Israel and South America, and there’s talk of Europe next year.
Last month, Led Zeppelin 2 returned to the House Of Blues in Chicago for the 10th anniversary of the tribute act’s first gig there. Then as now, the place was packed. Singer Bruce Lamont pulls off an absolutely credible Robert Plant, while guitarist Paul Kamp apes Jimmy Page right down to his famous violin bow solo. As in the real Led Zeppelin, the band’s secret weapon is its multi-instrumentalist Matthew Longbons as John Paul Jones. And Greg Fundis can execute a commanding minutes-long drum solo that would make the real John Bonham green with envy. Before their set, we sat down backstage with Lamont and Kamp to discuss life as a Led Zeppelin tribute band in 2018.
Paul Kamp: Well, it started—should we say what year? ’99?
Bruce Lamont: At Double Door, Local H would always do the Halloween bands every year, so we asked if we could take over Beat Kitchen. We had done a Sabbath cover years ago, the four of us. So we were like, “Oh, that’d be fun. Let’s do Sabbath.” We did Sabbath for, like, two years in a row. And we just did it for Halloween for a few years, and then [it] just kind of snowballed, and here we are.
PK: I think we played once in 2001 and once in 2003. [In] 2004 I cut the end of my finger off. I got married in 2005. We played at my wedding. So that was probably the embryo of it, playing at the wedding, because then I realized that I could still play without the tip of my finger.
AVC: How did you cut your finger off?
PK: I was working, and in between jobs, I always used to do construction or painting or I got a gig doing boat repairs. And I was climbing out the hatch, and I got sliced. Just a nice, clean removal off the top.
BL: We did a fundraiser thing for him. We called it “Give Paul The Finger.” It had all these images—we had Tony Iommi, everyone that had lost a finger, like Jerry Garcia, Django Reinhardt, we had him up there. Just everybody that… like, all is not lost. These folks figured out how to play the guitar.
PK: It’s interesting. I had a really, really good night playing guitar just prior to that. And there was a bunch of people standing there and applauding, and the thought crossed my head like, “Okay, don’t let this go to my head, you know? Keep me level, keep me in check,” right after that. And then—
BL: You called a few weeks after you did it. I was like, “Oh god, well this is over. He cut his finger off.” And then you’re like, “I just played ‘Going To California’ without using my index finger.” I was like, “What?!”
And for a couple of years, he did a lot of that. He didn’t use his finger at all. He figured out everything just with these—
PK: When I got married, I did “Bron-Yr-Aur” from Physical Graffiti with three fingers, while my wife was walking down the aisle. So it was kind of a big moment.
BL: Talk about pressure.
PK: Actually, everybody turned around and looked at her, and nobody was paying any attention to me, so…
AVC: You got married, and then the gigs started?
PK: It was still once or twice a year at Martyrs’.
BL: Until about ’07, because that’s when you lost your job.
PK: 2008 is when I wasn’t working full-time, and then we started to do a few more shows, and we did a couple of summer festival things. And then 2008 we played Empty Bottle, and then House Of Blues called. The very first time we played House Of Blues, it was a sold-out show, and there was 300 people waiting outside trying to get in.
AVC: This year with the tours, is this the furthest that you’ve gone?
BL: We’ve been to Panama. We’ve been to Canada a few times, but yeah. It definitely exceeded our expectations, that’s for sure.
PK: If you remember in Panama, we played, and then right after the show, we went back into the tiny little dressing room that we had to share with another band. There was a girl band, and we were all in one small dressing room together. And we played the show, and there were all these women out in the audience like it was The Beatles.
AVC: For you guys.
PK: Yeah, for us. I opened the door up, and I saw all these people trying to get into the room, and I closed the door real quick. And then I thought, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to sit in this room.” So I just opened the door, and I said, “Excuse me,” and walked out.
BL: They were banging on the door, and it was a little frightening, but then once you got out to talk to the people, it was great. Super sweet, [they] just wanted to, you know, hug and take pictures and stuff. We were happy to oblige, of course.
PK: It was super easy. One of the easiest gigs we’ve done. Actually, the same with Israel—once we got there, there were so many good people taking care of things so well that it was really easy and fun.
BL: We averaged, like, 1,500 people a night, easy. We didn’t even check with pre-sales or anything. So we got there and were like, “Oh, is anyone coming tonight?” You know? “Oh yeah, there’s, like, 1,600 pre-sale tonight and 1,500 tomorrow.” We’re like, “What? Really?” People were way into it, so it was fun. There was a ton of security the first night when people ran to the front of the stage. The security was all freaked out. They wanted people in their seats.
AVC: Israel knows security.
BL: They do. They sure do.
PK: They’re really good at that. But yeah, that was fun.
AVC: It’s a testament to Zeppelin, how much that band has reached globally.
BL: Yes, every corner of the globe for sure, they’re singing it.
AVC: When this became a more serious thing for you guys, did you watch footage? Are you trying to mimic solos? How much research do you put into this?
PK: At one point, sure. I don’t think we watch that much footage anymore. Occasionally to brush up on something, but yeah. I study as much as possible. What’s fun about this band—Matt and Greg are seasoned musicians and have the ability to work off-the-cuff, so we definitely have some elements of improvisation going on, maybe the way Zeppelin would do it live, maybe. We think. We don’t know because they didn’t really know what they were going to do either, so…
BL: And we’ve listened to enough live shows where they definitely… There’s certain eras where they peaked and then they did not.
AVC: What’s the difference between a great Zeppelin live performance and the ones that were flatter?
PK: It’s just energy through the whole thing. I mean, 1972, they’re just firing on all cylinders. By the time ’77 rolled around, they were easily the biggest band in the world trying to play three-hour shows. The energy… You can just hear it dip. There are some shining moments, but not like ’72 where it’s just song after song, like bam, bam, bam. Absolutely hungry and powerful. Unbelievable power. Better than anybody.
AVC: Right. Best guitarist, best vocalist, best drummer, best bass.
PK: Yes, the secret weapon, John Paul Jones—
AVC: John Paul Jones is totally the secret weapon.
PK: He’s my favorite for sure.
BL: He’s so underrated. Did you go to the 2007 show? The ’02 Arena? He just kills it. Kills it! He’s perfect. Perfect bass playing—
AVC: He’s an amazing instrumentalist, can arrange like a champ—
BL: And he’s just got a cool backstory. The guy is into noise—like he creates—a noise project he does. A friend of mine toured with him, and they were playing to, like, 15 people, because that’s what noise shows are like. Fifteen people, you’re like, “Hurray! It’s sold out!” But John Paul Jones—that’s rad as hell. You know, he produced a Butthole Surfers record—yeah, you’re a cool dude. Okay.
AVC: And you’re pulling that element up in a live show, because you can never see Zeppelin, but people want to see you guys.
BL: That’s kind of our take on this whole Zeppelin thing. Some bands just regurgitate the album cuts, where we wanted to take it somewhere else.
AVC: You’re not just doing “Stairway” for two hours.
BL: “Stairway,” though…
AVC: You kind of have to.
PK: We were on and off for a long time, but then we were finally like, “Eh, let’s just do it.”
AVC: What’s your favorite song to do?
PK: It would be “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” one of my favorite sort of blues songs. It’s a great, great track.
BL: “Tangerine” we only do in Chicago because we have Steve Doyle from The Hoyle Brothers in every year, so that’s a special treat. “Achilles Last Stand” also is one of the favorites.
AVC: It seems like you kind of fell into this, and now it’s a career, but you’re happy with it, because what better band?
BL: Maybe Rush.
AVC: This tour seems like a long stretch for you guys.
BL: We do a lot of weekends. We’ve tried the full-on five or six shows in a row, and you can tell on Monday, you know, there would be a few hundred people. And then by Saturday, there would be maybe 1,200 people. So we are definitely that weekend warrior kind of band.
PK: We got to do a tour with Australia and Aussie Floyd, who I suppose some people may consider to be the gold standard of tribute bands. We were playing the amphitheaters where Rush and Van Halen and Def Leppard played before. And so then, you have to pretty much play all throughout the week. You don’t really have a life. In the summertime, it’s a little bit different, too. People have more flexibility.
AVC: At this point, you could also do corporate events, right? Stuff that’s more lucrative?
PK: It pops up occasionally, for sure. We were in the middle of a tour a couple of years ago, and we had to fly back here because we had this Sam Adams event we got at the Metro. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. We were in Florida. We were like, “Okay, Saturday night in Florida. We’ve got a show Sunday afternoon in Chicago, so get on a plane, let’s go. We’re going home to do this stuff.”
BL: Then there are nights—or even weeks—where we spend money. When we have to have a crew, the expenses go up and up and up. And then we end up looking at the numbers at the end. It’s like, “Well, okay, we didn’t make any money that time.” I guess it’s a balance you have to figure out.
PK: I had fun today despite all the hassle. We played on [Chicago morning radio show] Mancow, and then we played on the Wendy And Bill show. So we were literally—
BL: Lugging gear from NBC Tower walking over to Tribune Tower at 6:30 this morning.
PK: And we had to get up at 5 in the morning, and none of us had slept.
AVC: Do you change up your set list every time? Or do you have a perfect set?
BL: We change it up.
AVC: You’d get bored probably.
PK: There’s a handful of songs we have to play every night. You mentioned “Stairway.” There’s no way we can pass up on that one. We have in the past, and at the end of the night, we look out and we see all these people mouthing “Stairway.” People complained if we didn’t play “Kashmir,” but then we play “Kashmir.”
AVC: I’ve heard that’s Plant’s favorite Led Zep song.
BL: That’s not our favorite.
PK: And most of the crowd, too. You can see they’re like, “Yeah!” And then about a quarter of the way through, they’re like, “Ehh…”
BL: “I didn’t realize how long this was going on.”
PK: It doesn’t go anywhere! For 11 minutes, it’s like, “Wow.” We even shaved a minute or two off. It’s like a six-minute version of “Kashmir.”
BL: It’s okay. I did a radio interview the other night, and I just happened to mention I wore a wig, and they’re like [Gasps.], “You wear a wig?” I’m like, “Of course I wear a wig!” I’m not going to dye my hair blond. That’s crazy.
AVC: If you’re singing like Robert Plant multiple nights a month, how do you keep your throat from not shredding?
BL: Just drink a lot of alcohol. No—I warm up. Try not to do more than three or four shows in a row.
AVC: Is “Immigrant Song” a staple? I feel like that would be really hard.
BL: “Immigrant Song” is a staple. And it can’t be the first song—or, generally not the first song. It has been, and I’ve just got to prepare a little more for it, but yep, it’s in there. I don’t know if we’re doing it tonight, though. It’s not in there tonight. It’s not in that set.
PK: We are leaving now! This interview is over!
AVC: Is that the hardest song for you?
BL: The high stuff isn’t so much the hardest stuff to do, because his voice changed through the career. Some of the songs, it feels like Graffiti for me. It’s harder to get closer to that sound than he had then. Or say we do “Sick Again” and then “Immigrant Song.” It’s like, “Whoa,” totally change gears, because he never did that. I mean, he kind of changed his voice—he went down at least an octave by 1973. So he wasn’t even going for the high stuff. I don’t even know if they did “Immigrant Song” later in their years.
AVC: Paul, what about you? What’s your hardest? All of Page’s stuff is so intricate and complicated.
PK: There’s a lot of moments where I have to play some beautifully delicate thing all by myself onstage, and there’s no room for error. So, honestly, playing the first opening phrase of “Stairway To Heaven” is a challenge because it’s like—
AVC: Everybody knows it so well.
PK: I can’t make a mistake, you know? “Achilles Last Stand” is spectacularly difficult, but for me, it’s not one of the harder songs to play, just because that was one of the ones I really committed myself to right away. And then there’s songs that sound kind of easy like “Houses Of The Holy” or “Night Flight.” And for some reason, the chords are a little bit difficult to grab. The songs that sound hard are usually not the ones that are harder for me to play. It’s the songs that are easier, but you have to get just exactly the right sounds out of them.
AVC: Are the people who come diehards? Do they come after you and be like, “So that chord change,” or whatever?
BL: Not that, but we definitely get the “I saw Zeppelin in the ’70s.” Generally, it’s positive, and there’s kids that never got a chance to see him, and we’re all like, “Neither did we.”
AVC: It seems like your band is getting more traction. What’s next? Europe? Just keep doing this?
BL: Yeah. The promoter who brought us over for Israel immediately was like, “Okay, we’re doing this in November. We’re doing some European dates. We’re going to do Moscow, we’re going to do this.” And he wasn’t full of shit. He impressed us big time with Israel. So I was like, “Okay, you can pretty much do anything. We’re down.” So, we’ll see what happens.
AVC: Even in Israel and Panama, even the lesser-known Led Zep stuff, people were still all over that?
BL: Mm hmm. Global penetration.
PK: Yup, the whole world knows. And every once and a while, a young fan will say, “I didn’t know that song was Led Zeppelin.” Or something like that. That’s good.