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Can Symphonic Zeppelin Grow Classical Audience?

Mar 14, 2015

Though active in a real sense for only about 12 years, the game-changing albums of Led Zeppelin span a wealth of styles -- from the proto-metal stomp of "Black Dog" to the relaxed reggae lilt of "D'yer Mak'er," from the apocalyptic grandeur of "Kashmir" to the scorching, Stevie Wonder-as-rock god stance of "Trampled Under Foot." Their catalog is both a treasure trove and a gauntlet, full of ideas to explore and expand, but delivered with such graceful efficiency that it's hard to imagine anybody truly improving upon them.

Many tribute bands make their livelihood playing Zeppelin songs -- Zoso and Led Zeppelin 2 tour non-stop through large rock clubs across the country, including stops in Charlotte. And several seek to put a new spin on the familiar gimmick -- the cleverly named Lez Zeppelin features an all-female lineup. But it's a safe bet that none but The Music of Led Zeppelin, who arrive in town Saturday, March 21 for a date with the Charlotte Symphony, feature a Berklee-trained arranger and conductor in their ranks.
"It took a number of years for orchestras to kind of get the idea," Brent Havens laughs. Since 1995, he has toured the world with a five-piece band, performing two hours of his own Led Zeppelin arrangements with local symphonies. "Most orchestras were like, 'Yeah, our audience would never come to this.' Our point to them was, 'Yeah, we're not looking for your audience. We're looking to bring a whole new audience, a rock 'n' roll audience."

In an era when symphonic music's demographics are aging and their numbers are shrinking, Havens' shows help pack the seats -- and the coffers. The idea started pretty simply, when the Virginia Symphony called on this native son to help stimulate attendance by doing some kind of rock show. After a little brainstorming, the idea of a Zeppelin tribute emerged, and Havens set himself to adapting the material.
"One of the big things for me was I didn't want to reinterpret the music," he explains. "I wanted to take what was originally there on the recordings and add to it, supplement it -- if it's possible, make it more powerful than it was originally. I didn't want to write a muzac version of Led Zeppelin because that music was so powerful as it was."

"I've heard other, quote-unquote, 'reinterpretations' of some of the rock classics," he continues. "And if it takes somebody 35, 40 seconds to figure out what the tune is, I haven't done my job. That irritates the heck out of me, like, 'What the heck tune is this anyway?'"

Turns out, Havens knew what the people wanted. Twenty years after he debuted The Music of Led Zeppelin, his Windborne Music now tours 10 other tribute shows, giving similar orchestral treatment to various titans of popular music: Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, U2, The Who, Queen and The Eagles are all featured in his current rotation.
For each show, Havens has a band that travels with him from town to town, playing with a different orchestra at each stop. They arrive the night before a performance, setting up the following morning. The band then rehearses with the orchestra for about 90 minutes in the afternoon and takes the stage for a concert that night. Havens knows his regular players well. Most take part in multiple shows, with bassist Don Clemens, drummer Powell Randolph and guitarist George Cintron serving as the backbone for all of his The Music of ... lineups.

The only wild card is the orchestras, but Havens says that's hardly a problem.

"With orchestras like the Charlotte Symphony, I can go in, and they'll see this music for the first time and within the 90 minutes, that means it's absolutely perfect," he explains. "Everything they need to know on how to play it and what we're looking for is right there on the page, and they will play it note-for-note with very little issues."

It's funny, given that all this started with a two-hour homage to Led Zeppelin, that Havens wasn't all that familiar with the band before he approached his arrangements. He knew "the tunes that were big on the radio when I was growing up," but he never dove into their catalog. To his surprise, he found plenty to work with -- opportunities to counterpoint guitar solos with upper-register string swells, chances to recast multi-tracked studio melody as layered orchestral sprawl. He notes with fondness the chaotic meter shifts of the Houses of the Holy cut "The Ocean," proudly listing the virtues of a band he's come to know and love.
"They were just playing what they thought felt right," Havens offers. "And you know what? It really does. I've really come to appreciate how amazing they were as composers and artists."

"These guys were very much ahead of their time," he adds, "and really set the bar high for the people coming after them. They were doing multi-structured chords, a chord on top of another chord, with open-tuning guitars and multi-tracking a lot of that guitar work into it. It's made me appreciate that band in a way that I never would have had I not dug into it."

For the musicians in Havens' band, playing this music means stepping out on hallowed ground. When Cintron goes after that high and winding solo from "Stairway to Heaven," he's taking on an idol, delivering a part that millions of aspiring rock stars have played on air guitar. Singer Randy Jackson, also the leader of the veteran hard-rock band Zebra, has long since made his peace with the legend of Robert Plant. The frontman for The Music of Led Zeppelin since 1996, he also handles vocals for Havens' Pink Floyd concerts.
"Plant is the creator," Jackson says. "Led Zeppelin created this whole thing. I'm there to celebrate the music along with the audience and do my best interpretation. I don't pretend to be Robert Plant, and that's not what we do onstage. There's a lot of tribute bands out there that are great, and they get dressed up like Led Zeppelin. That's not what this is. It's really just a celebration of the music."
Havens' decisions about which bands to cover are certainly based on an admiration for their material. But his first concerns have more to do with dollars and cents. At this point, he says he writes one or two new shows a year, currently sitting on two new programs that will premiere soon. To draw the crowds that he's after, the groups he targets have to be huge.
"We get people asking us all the time to do this group or that group, and their U.S. sales are only maybe 10 million albums or something like that," Havens says.
It sounds like a harsh standard, but you can't argue with the conductor's success. His team took a survey shortly after The Music of Led Zeppelin started, finding that 85 percent of attendees hadn't previously seen their local symphonies. Havens doesn't think that's changed.

"In general, it's been very positive," he says, speaking to how these green audiences energize the orchestras. "It's hard not to get a really good reaction when the audience is going nuts and you get six standing ovations."