Lez Zeppelin was hardly the first all-women outfit paying tribute to all-men rock bands. But when the group formed back in 2004, the trend was in its infancy. AC/DShe and Cheap Chick were around, but the Iron Maidens, Misstallica, Ramonas and many others had yet to form.
What all of these bands have in common is the unfortunate necessity of proving themselves. Even in 2018, many still view all-female bands as a novelty. Sure, kitschy names and gender puns don't help establish credibility. Still, male tribute bands often have silly names, and they don’t have to work nearly as hard to prove they’ve honed their musical chops. Lez Zeppelin guitarist Steph Paynes views this perception as a challenge to overcome – and overcome it she does.
“First of all, Led Zeppelin is a very high bar, period – even for them,” she says. “But then being all women, with a kitschy name – I realized what I was doing with that name. The idea is to get them through the door for whatever reason. It was glorious to watch the front rows of people after a minute or so of ‘Immigrant Song,’ their faces completely changed into this jaw-dropping look. They just didn’t expect it from women. There’s a sexist, initial skepticism that you have to overcome, but that’s fun. We take it as a challenge, and it’s great to transform people who don’t expect to see anything that good and don’t expect women to be able to play like that.”
Fun to destroy expectations, maybe. But alarming that people are still so terribly ignorant. That’s the kind of nonsense Lez Zeppelin has had to face since Paynes put the band together on a whim about fourteen years ago. She was between gigs at the time, having recently been on the road in Ronnie Spector’s band.
“I just thought it would be really fun to get all these licks under my fingertips, but also, somewhat intuitively, to play with all girls,” she says. “I had been in one other all-girl band, and it was incredibly powerful. I was sure that this would be the way to go. People wanted to see girls playing Led Zeppelin. The band’s had several lineups, and the original band is long gone, but it was really a magical thing. Everyone who’s been in the band has been a spectacular musician.”
What is undeniable is that Led Zeppelin was a band dripping in machismo, from the lyrics right down to the groupie culture. When women are performing that music, are they tempted to change the lyrics around a little? Maybe switch some “shes” for “hes”? Apparently not.
“Calling ourselves Lez Zeppelin is very handy for that reason,” says Paynes. “We don’t have to change a single word. Whether you believe the band is truly lez in a literal way — and we don’t answer, so don’t bother asking — we don’t change any of that. We’re playing their music with that attitude, so we keep it all.”
Impressively, all of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin know of Lez Zeppelin at this point, and at least two have seen the cover band play. Bassist John Paul Jones has even expressed a desire to join the women on stage at some point, though it hasn’t happened yet.
“Jimmy I’ve also met a couple of times,” says Paynes. “He actually came to see us play in London. That was really fantastic. After the gig, he rushed backstage to say hi, and he loved it. It may be the scariest gig I’ve ever played, because I knew he would be there. But I always play like he’s in the audience — that’s my bar. What he cared about was the passion with which we were playing, and even that we were adding ourselves to the music. That’s what blew him away, and he said that’s the way it should be done. That’s what it’s about.”
It was at the end of 2007 — a decade ago now — that Led Zeppelin played that one-off reunion show at the O2 Arena in London. Paynes was fortunate enough to have been there, thanks to a friend in the guitar-dealing business, and she counts herself blessed.
“That was the first time I really saw them,” she says. “It was stunning to see Jimmy up there doing it. I was nervous for him, because I know how hard it is. I met him for the first time later, when they turned that show into the Celebration Day movie.”
As for her own band, Paynes says that her favorite song to perform live shifts from tour to tour, and it often depends which tune they’ve been working on most recently.
“Our most recent addition is “Achilles Last Stand,” and we get a big kick out of playing that, because we’re at the edge of our seats,” she says. “First of all, it’s ten and a half minutes long, and the arrangements are insane. It’s one of the hardest to play, because it takes so long to remember where everything is. ‘Dazed and Confused’ is always an adventure, and we like playing ‘No Quarter.’ I’m not sure it’s an audience favorite all the time, because it’s like a jazz concert.”
On Friday, Lez Zeppelin will be at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, followed by a Saturday gig in Nederland, and then on to Colorado Springs on Sunday. It’s not unusual for the band to spend a lot of time in this state, as it turns out.
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“It’s one of our favorite places in the whole country, and we’ve been coming for twelve years, at least,” Paynes says. “It’s a fantastic audience. We used to do longer tours in Colorado, in all the ski areas. We’d spend a week or two there. There’s a great love for this music in Colorado. The people get very into their music, and they really appreciate it. It’s that kind of audience. Fun-loving, knowledgable and into it.”
As for the set, Paynes says that as they haven’t been to Denver in a while, we can expect tunes that they’ve never performed here before.
“Some surprises, though there’s some stuff you can’t not play,” she says. “I’d be curious to know what people want to hear, but it’ll be very different. The shows have been fantastic, and I think people are gonna see the band in top form.”
Lez Zeppelin plays with Lotus Gait at 9 p.m. on Friday, January 5, at the Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 303-377-1666; then with the Jackson Cloud Band at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 6, at the Caribou Room, 55 Indian Peaks Drive, Nederland, 303-258-3637.