By Cole Landon, Contributing Writer
All photographs credited to Celebration Day: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin
It’s Friday, February 22nd at the popular St. Louis concert venue The Pageant. The stage lights flash to life and two amphetamine-thin figures swagger up from backstage and into the crowd’s view. The beer-infused, middle-aged audience roars in applause for the two rock stars decked out in 70’s counter-culture apparel. The men dawn skin-tight bell-bottoms, floral women’s blouses, and long, natural hair.
The band is Celebration Day: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, with vocalist Mark Quinn and guitarist Jimmy Griffin playing the roles of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, respectively. All St. Louis native musicians, drummer John Pessoni, bassist Cub Smith and keyboardist Dave Grelle complete the outfit.
As a long-time fan of Led Zeppelin, I was excited to see their widely-toured tribute band for the first time. Despite their annual show at The Pageant, I had never pulled the trigger on the tickets before now. I’m sorry to say that after an obligatory ride to the venue with Zeppelin nearly blowing out the speakers on my 2000 Chevy Astro van, as soon as the band opened with the tune “Good Times, Bad Times,” my excitement dissipated; I was already disappointed.
Before I elaborate, I want to point out some of the many incredible feats Celebration Day accomplish with their live show.
First and foremost, these guys sound like Led Zeppelin. To start the show, they played the entire album “Led Zeppelin I” from top to bottom, and it felt like listening to the original tracks. The vocals were eerily Plant-esque, with screaming falsetto highs that cascaded down into guttural moans.
Griffin’s guitar work was spot on, though some nuances of Page’s sloppy and erratic technique (or lack thereof) can’t be emulated without sounding a bit on-the-nose. The ”Heartbreaker” solo, for example, was just as ballsy, brass and aggressive as the recording, but the devil-may-care nonchalance with which Page recorded that solo just can’t be accurately copied. Of course, the wall of Marshall stacks behind Griffin certainly helped to capture the stadium-rock-god tone and image.
The rhythm section delivered, with Pessoni and Smith gluing the band together and driving them forward riff after riff. Special props to Pessoni for hammering out a ground-shaking seven-minute drum solo during “Moby Dick”; John Bonham would have approved. The bright bass tone and massive kick drum stayed synced, tight and fat in classic Led Zeppelin form (i.e. “Ramble On”).
The accuracy of the sound, as well as the stage presence and visuals, illustrate the effort and love that is poured into these performances. I would never knock these guys for what they’re doing; it’s coming from the right place and it’s executed very carefully.
However, I was disappointed.
The most exciting aspect of seeing a live show is that you’re face to face with the creators of the music that’s been a source of joy in your life. Nothing can replace the moment they take the stage; your heroes suddenly become real to you. Of course, I knew not to expect this with Celebration Day; they’re a tribute band. But somehow, as I listened, it felt wrong. I could enjoy the performance objectively; it was a great performance, but I couldn’t enjoy it subjectively. Unfortunately, I feel my night would have been better spent with my vinyl Led Zeppelin discography. You can’t inject heart and soul into a project after it’s been so meticulously constructed.
All in all, my experience with Celebration Day was akin to seeing Santa at the mall; everyone knows it’s a little off, but you play along because it’s all in good fun. I would recommend Celebration Day to anyone looking for a night full of light-hearted classic rock shenanigans, or anyone over 50 wanting to relive some golden-year nostalgia. However, if you’re a die-hard fan hoping for a surrogate for seeing the real deal, I’d recommend a night-in with your heroes on the screen; The Song Remains the Same is a spectacular assembly of footage from Zeppelin’s epic 1973 shows at Madison Square Garden.
As for Celebration Day, their song – almost – remains the same. Almost.