Zeppelin Takes Flight with Windborne and the DPO
By J.T. Ryder
From the resonantly crunching opening chords that fall into a tumbling torrent of drumbeats at the beginning of “Good Times, Bad Times” to the sprawling soulful blues and epically heartfelt vocal delivery of “I’m Gonna Crawl” that closes the In Through The Out Door album, Led Zeppelin reigned supreme, creating and refining a whole new era in rock history, becoming one of the most commercially and critically successful rock bands in history. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham created a mind numbing array of music, both in substance and quantity, within the short time that the band was together. The effect of their presence can be felt within almost every subsequent rock band that followed in their footsteps.
As with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Doors and other iconic bands from ages past, some feel as if they are treading on hallowed ground, unable to add or subtract one iota from the sheaves of music that is sometimes treated as holy writ. There are those, however, that succeed in transcending the original musical legacy to create a wholly new perspective into the songs and legends that were created by these arena gods. One such endeavor was created by Windborne founder Brent Havens when he took the approach of fusing an orchestrated symphony to the fiery swan songs of Led Zeppelin.
“I transcribed the Zeppelin stuff in 1995, which a lot of the technology that’s out there for transcription wasn’t there in ’95,” Brent Havens said. “Computers nowadays, I can take stuff down, and slow it down and just get ridiculously specific with it, whereas in 1995 when I did it, I had a cassette player and a pencil, so it was a lot harder to transcribe back then.”
“The band is such an amazing band that … I mean, it’s Zeppelin … c’mon!” said Havens. “But, I wanted to get it right. I don’t know if you’ve looked at those books when you go to the store and it’s supposedly true transcriptions … and it sounds nothing like the song at all. I’d look at it and it wasn’t even remotely close and I’d think, ‘What the heck are they listening to?’ So, I ended up having to do it all by myself and then I orchestrated it based on my transcriptions.”
When asked what the most challenging song from the Zeppelin catalogue to transcribe was, Havens said, “You know, that’s a good question. You mentioned ‘Rock and Roll’ and one of my problems with doing some of those kinds of tunes, where it’s the same thing over and over and over for like four to six minutes, [is] it gets difficult to orchestrate after like the first three bars because it’s just the same thing playing over and over and over. Then there are songs like ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ where it’s that da-DAH-da-da-Dah-dum-dum-dum-dum … well that plays throughout the whole tune. Fortunately for that tune, there’s that whole breakdown where there’s that percussion and Bonham goes kind of nuts on the drums and Page does all that slide stuff on the guitar … and we do all that too … so that ended up being fun. This is one of those types of things where I needed the orchestra to really dig in and play the licks … it can’t just be nice and sweet. It’s got to thump. You’ve got to take your violin and dig into it. Get the rosin on that bow really digging into the strings there.”
Havens said, “The transcription part is really tedious because you’ve really got to get down into the middle of the tune and figure out what they are playing. With Zeppelin, Page liked to do a lot of multi-structured chords, which is chords on top of chords, and he did alternate tunings on his guitar and all sorts of other stuff.”
Beyond Page’s alchemical approach to guitar playing, there were other technical aspects of the show that were difficult to replicate, such as Robert Plant’s sonic vocals. In the early days, Robert Plant had an uncanny ability to hit the highs with sheer power, and his range was estimated to cross through four octaves. The burden of filling the great golden god’s shoes fell to Randy Jackson, the lead singer of Zebra.
“My natural voice, before I switch into my head voice or my falsetto, it gets maybe to an A or an A#,” Jackson said. “I can hit a B and I can hit a C in my natural voice, but I can’t do it for long periods of time. The key to it is trying to combine the head voice and your natural voice to where they don’t sound any different from each other, and you can merge them. That’s what I have done.”
In comparing it to Plant’s voice, Jackson said, “Plant had a range that just … he was like a bull in a china shop. He hit B in a full voice before he switched over. He was so young when he was doing all this stuff, I don’t know if it mattered at that point because he made all those early records when his voice was in prime shape and I don’t think he even thought about making his falsetto lower and his natural voice higher.”
When asked what his favorite Zeppelin song to sing was, (expecting to hear him tally off a list of their greatest hits, like “Kashmir,” “Rock and Roll” or the ubiquitous “Stairway To Heaven”) without hesitation, Jackson said, “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
“The reason is because there is no other blues song ever written like it, with the turnaround and everything,” he said. “It is completely original. The vocals and the guitar are just … even when it first came out, I remember I always used to listen to it over and over and over again. It’s just a song that you can’t get enough of and so doing it also, it allows you to do a lot of different things.”
Jackson went on, trying to capture the essence of his enchantment with the song. “Like, I don’t have to sing it … I can go off on my own because it’s blues. It’s just a great song. That turnaround is just … I’ve never heard anything else like it.”
With Led Zeppelin’s layered approach to music, with its almost orchestrated guitar laden melodies, one would think that it would lend itself well to being extrapolated to a symphonic piece … Brent Havens related that it was not that simple of a process.
“Well, you know, in some respects, it’s different. I’m not necessarily sure that it is better or worse. I mean, obviously, songs like ‘Kashmir’ where there was already orchestration, it was a lot easier for me. I have more people that I have to fill parts for too, but it also opens up a whole new set of colors for me because there is a whole entire orchestra sitting there. Songs like ‘Black Dog’ are just lick based with that whole …”
Havens the broke off, scatting the guitar riff, “… so to not only have the bass player and the guitarist playing it, but having the whole entire orchestra playing it where they pop in and out of the line, each section will pop in and out of that line and then, during the middle section, everybody just comes in and wails. Certainly it lent itself to orchestration. It really gives such cool colors having an entire orchestra playing it.”
In dealing with music that some feel is perfect in every way, did Haven’s feel concerned that the fans of Led Zeppelin would feel that this was a sacrilege and would shun his work?
“Yes! Well, one of the things, early on when we started doing this, the thing that I stressed to my musicians; Zeppelin fans are serious fans. They don’t want my interpretation of that music: they want to hear that music with some complementary material.”
Havens went on and explained, “A whole orchestra can really give some complementary material. Tunes like ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ was just four of those guys playing, basically, and just imagine that ballad with a gorgeous full orchestra with lines going behind it and counterpoints … it just sets it apart from the original, in terms of it adds more to it.”
Jackson echoed Havens’ insights, allowing his own perspective of Havens’ work to show through.
“The music is what is drawing them to the show and it’s our job to do it well,” Jackson said. “They are not coming to see us, per se; they are coming to see Zeppelin music performed by a symphony. At the same time, it’s our job to make sure that what they are familiar with is there … we don’t want to do a Muzak version of Led Zeppelin, so our show rocks! The orchestra comes in and sometimes they’re doing guitar parts and in songs like ‘Black Dog,’ they’re playing the whole riff. At other times, they’re doing their parts as they were done on the keyboard on the record, like the Mellotron parts or the organ parts in ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You.’”
Jackson went on and said, “Brent has picked some spots, and not a lot, to add things to the music with the orchestra, but for the most part, he sticks to what is on the record and just uses different instruments for the elements. I think it’s a great thing because it allows people to enjoy the music without being distracted by some arranger’s idea of what to add.”
As with any story about Led Zeppelin, now comes the penultimate moment wherein there is the discussion of the treatment given to the definitive power rock anthem, ‘Stairway To Heaven …’
“With that, I just build, and build and build,” Havens said. “It starts out with the woodwinds at the top, which are the recorders on the original recording, but I transcribed those exactly as they were, so that gets the treatment. As the tune goes through, it builds and builds until, by the end, it’s just wailing. I have an electric violinist on the show who plays the guitar solo (starts scatting the solo) in tandem with the guitar player.”
Havens reiterated the effect of the solo by saying, “So the electric guitarist and the electric violinist are playing that solo on separate sides of the stage note for note and it’s like in stereo. It’s a really cool effect.”
Experience the “Music Of Led Zeppelin” as Brent Havens conducts the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and a full rock and roll band, replete with an electric violinist, as they shred through the catalogue of one of the most iconic bands in history.
The show is April 2 at 8:00 p.m. at the Schuster Center. Tickets range from $22 to $76. For more information or to order tickets, call 1-888-228-3630 or go online to www.daytonphilharmonic.com. For more information about Windborne, the show and other shows that they conduct, go to www.themusicofledzeppelin.com. For more information about Randy Jackson, check out his website at www.thedoor.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at JTRyder@daytoncitypaper.com.