Heavy rock gets a dose of symphony from the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in The Music Of Led Zeppelin.
THEY sang songs about love. About Vikings. About Vikings making love,” declared Jack Black to the audience at the 2012 Kennedy Centre Honors during a Led Zeppelin tribute. Black’s assertion is just one of the innumerable facets of the quartet that’s recognised as having moulded rock music the way we know it.
In the span of just a dozen years, Led Zep went from blues rock hopefuls to arguably the greatest rock band to roam the earth, selling over 300 million albums and earning the reputation of being one of the most exciting live acts ever.
The music of the band will be celebrated in symphonic style when the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra tips its hat to the famous quartet at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP) in KLCC from Aug 23-24 in The Music Of Led Zeppelin, shaking the foundations of the hallowed hall’s previously perceived stiff upper lip.
Berklee-trained conductor/arranger Brent Havens and singer Randy Jackson will drag rock n’ roll kicking and screaming into the nation’s most elegant concert venue, and both men were only to willing to spill the beans on all things Zep in recent e-mail interviews.
Picturing the music made by singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham in an orchestral context would be a stretch, what more for the uninitiated, but as Havens rightly points out, Led Zep’s music has qualities to lend itself to symphonic interpretation.
“Led Zep was one of the first heavy rock bands to actually use some real orchestration, as you’ll hear on songs like Kashmir. Real strings, real brass ... and it works very well. So, even though the guitars and drums were very heavy on their songs, adding orchestration was not unheard of for Zep,” said the conductor, intimating that even though the music was heavily blues-driven, the band’s combination of unique guitar tunings and rhythmic grooves, combined with the melodies written by Page and Plant, made for a heady brew.
According to him, a blues gem like Since I’ve Been Loving You benefits greatly from a full orchestra backing, surprisingly, likewise riff-based tunes such as Black Dog and The Ocean.
His approach to this production was to transcribe each and every part of the songs (for his band and orchestra), understand their intricacies and then weave the orchestral arrangements around them.
“The band plays nearly everything that’s on the recordings, so you’ll hear all of the original material. Then, I add all of the different parts of the orchestra to the arrangement; strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion.”
Behind the strings
Havens began this Led Zep tribute project in 1995, when he was looking for ways to bring a new audience to orchestra concerts. And since that starting point, he has done symphonic productions for the music of Doobie Brothers, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Eagles, Queen and Michael Jackson.
Despite his detailed knowledge of the Led Zep songbook today, Havens didn’t grow up a fan of the band, though, choosing to immerse himself in the fusion boom of the 1970s and R&B music of the day.
“My favourite was Maynard Ferguson, a trumpet player who put out some amazing fusion big band material in the mid 1970s. That got me started in music. I also listened to the Doobie Brothers, Tower Of Power and Chicago,” he explained, revealing that he only later got into classical composers by way of Russians Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.
However, Jackson, who also performs and records with his long-standing band Zebra, was a fan from the off. “I bought my first Led Zeppelin album – II – in 1970 at a convenience store in New Orleans, where I grew up. I wore that record out! I watched them live for the first time in 1973 at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans,” said the singer, who played guitar and keyboards, and sang backup with the final lineup of the reunited version of Jefferson Airplane at the tail end of the 1980s.
It’s easy to assume that a dream gig for any rock singer would be one to sing Led Zep songs, and Jackson duly confirms.
“Robert Plant has always been my favourite singer. He certainly turned the rock world on its head when Led Zeppelin came out! For me, though, it was the combination of the orchestra with the rock band that really got my interest in this project since I played baritone horn in school bands from the time I was in elementary school through college.”
For him, getting to sing Since I’ve Been Loving You and Led Zep’s orchestral masterpiece The Rain Song take the cake. “Since I’ve Been Loving You is a song that really lets me stretch out on the vocals and I just love the chording turnaround at the end of the verses. The Rain Song is a great example of Led Zeppelin’s versatility.”
While an orchestral presentation of Led Zep’s music might seem like a sonic curve ball, Jackson approaches singing the songs like he would in a conventional rock band.
“I don’t do anything differently than I would if I was singing without the orchestra. We keep the core band arrangements true to the original versions, including the vocals, and let the addition of the orchestra make the performance unique.”
The setlist for the show also includes the likes of Good Times, Bad Times, Ramble On, Dancing Days, All My Love, The Song Remains The Same and Whole Lotta Love. No Stairway To Heaven? Head down to DFP to find out!
>The Music Of Led Zeppelin at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in KLCC runs from Aug 23-24. Browse www.mpo.com.my for more
info and ticket details. Call 03-2051 7007. Warner Music Malaysia will also be setting a pop-up stall at the venue with the recent Led Zeppelin reissues (CD, vinyl and deluxe boxsets) on sale.