Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Led Box: The Ultimate Tribute to Led Zeppelin

Billy Sherwood has been involved with a large number of tribute albums over the years, and has been honest that some of these were to pay the bills. Along the way, he's recruited an extensive set of guest appearances including multiple Yes men. Most recent was Abbey Road: A Tribute to the Beatles, and before that, the subject of today's blog, Led Box: The Ultimate Tribute to Led Zeppelin. 10 tracks here are produced by Sherwood, with other tracks by Bob Kulick and, on the US release, some recycled from an earlier tribute album.

The challenge for any tribute album is the inevitable comparison with the original work. When covering bands like Zeppelin or The Beatles, you not only have the originals but umpteen previous cover versions with which to compete. One approach is to stick close to the original form, but it can be hard to play the song better than the familiar original. At the other end of a spectrum, one can turn in a radical re-interpretation of the piece.

With much of Led Box, as with earlier Sherwood projects like Back Against the Wall (a tribute to Floyd's The Wall), Sherwood and guests mostly stick to faithful versions. I think that's a mistake. I like some tribute albums that are fairly close to the originals, like the Magna Carta Rush tribute Working Man, but by and large I prefer it when artists take songs in different directions. For example, Tales from Yesterday (Magna Carta's Yes tribute) has some strong, faithful covers, like Steve Howe and Annie Haslam doing "Turn of the Century", or Kevin Gilbert, Mike Keneally et al. doing "Siberian Khatru" (although the latter succeeds in part because of a fantastic twist in the middle). But many of the best tracks are radical reinterpretations ("Don't Kill the Whale", "Release, Release"). I'd recommend as a good model Encores Legends and Paradox, the 1999 Magna Carta tribute to ELP. (Lousy title, I know, but great album.) It's half arranged by Robert Berry and half by Trent Gardner, both working with various guests including Igor Khoroshev, Peter Banks, Geoff Downes, John Wetton, Pat Mastelotto and half of Dream Theater. Here is a project that really lets its guest musicians loose. Khoroshev and Mastelotto in particular shine. Similarly, in the realm of Led Zeppelin tributes I'd recommend Kashmir, the orchestral Zeppelin project by Jaz Coleman with Martin "Youth" Glover producing. Very different sound to Zeppelin, yet still distinctively Zeppelin. Perhaps it's that balance that's the secret: similar enough to evoke the original, different enough to stand on its own.

So that's a rather long preamble, but now back to Led Box. For me, the stand out track is "Black Dog" by Keith Emerson, with Sherwood and Alan White in support, and tribute band singer Michael White (no relation) on vocals. Given you can pick the album up fairly cheap, I'm tempted to say it's worth it for "Black Dog" alone. That's because it's distinctively Keith Emerson and distinctively "Black Dog". It's not a radically different reading of the song, but it's full of Emerson's personality. Likewise, it's Rick Wakeman's "Nobody Home" on Back Against the Wall that I return to because it's distinctively Wakeman. What's the point of having, say, Dweezil Zappa play "Stairway to Heaven" on Led Box if it doesn't sound like him?

Leave aside my difference of opinion over how to approach a tribute album, and there's perhaps a more fundamental problem for me with the Sherwood-led tracks here: the lacklustre performances. It's the Bob Kulick-led numbers on Led Box that work better. There's a spirited "Houses of the Holy" from Pat Travers, for example. In comparison, we've got three quarters of CIRCA: doing "All My Love" and it just sounds lifeless. This is Zeppelin: it's big, powerful, growling music and I hear no verve in most of the Sherwood-led renditions. I know these people can play with passion and emotion, but I'm not hearing it on these tracks.

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