by Steven Pisano
Consider, if you will, the following partial description of an object in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which ended this past weekend:
Archtop with F-holes and Venetian cutaway; laminated maple body and neck, rosewood fingerboard; 23½ in. scale; natural finish with white & black double binding, set neck with mother-of-pearl split parallelogram inlays and white binding to fingerboard; mother-of-pearl Gibson headstock logo with crown inlay; two PAF humbucking pickups,...
Sounds pretty fancy, doesn't it? Maybe a rare piece of furniture from a Renaissance craftsman, or a priceless treasure from a European estate?
Hell no! This is how the catalog begins the description of the Gibson ES-350T (ca. 1958) that Chuck Berry strutted on stage with in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing hits like "Johnny B. Goode."
The exhibition, entitled "Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll," which was produced in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, displayed hundreds of instruments, vintage posters, and other objects from rock & roll's past, from the 1950s through today. And not just back to the glory days of Chuck Berry and the like, but through the ensuing decades, including the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Prince, St. Vincent, and many others.
Like everyone else who was there in the audience that night, I naturally asked myself the same question you're probably wondering right now: A rock & roll show at the Met?
The evening started off slowly, with the kind of discussion you would expect at a world-leading museum. Lead guitarist Steph Paynes discussed an array of electric guitars at the front of the stage, all of them associated with Jimmy Page, as if they were Ming vases or Cellini sculptures. Paynes' respect for the past was palpable, and it was easy to see she was extremely honored to be representing Led Zeppelin at this show. Page himself has seen the group perform and has praised their musicianship.
Hell yes! Almost immediately, the group showed that they knew Zeppelin's music inside out, and from the first song forward it was a crazy ride for the next couple of hours. I'd even go as far as to say it was the best rock & roll show I have seen so far this year (and there are only a few months still left!). Sure, you can say that they are not playing their own music. And you have to grant that for any tribute band. But what sets Lez Zeppelin apart to me is that they make Jimmy Page's music their own. They play it very faithfully, but they don't play the music pedantically. They play it like it flows right out of them. And at this concert, that meant they kicked ass.
Steph Paynes is a standout guitarist. She knows how to make her instrument wail and moan with real rock and roll power, and she was ably backed up by the rhythm section of Leesa Harrington Squyres on drums and Joan Chew on bass and keys. But the real weight of convincing the audience was clearly on the shoulders of lead singer Marlain Angelides. In the original Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page's guitar (and songwriting, especially during the early years) really set the sound, but it was Robert Plant's screechy vocals that helped establish the origins of heavy metal, even if they were always a league ahead of the hair bands that would follow them in the 1980s. And heavy metal has always been a guys' music, fueled by testosterone, bravado, and lust.
Or at least that's what you may have thought before hearing Angelides belt out songs like "Whole Lotta Love" ("a-way, way deep inside..."), "Kashmir," and "Immigrant Song." The Zepheads sitting near me were on their feet, shouting, with their fists in the air, as if the original band was on stage.
More photos can be found here.