Dissertations have been written about tribute bands, which present a very cool opportunity to use the word “simulacra.”
But to deconstruct Zoso — “The Ultimate Led Zeppelin Experience” — is to miss an opportunity to enjoy its beautiful, backward-looking simplicity. These guys play Led Zeppelin’s songs like Led Zeppelin, and they look like Led Zeppelin did in 1974. Precision is key. Creativity is irrelevant. They are not a cheaper version of the real thing. They are the most realistic imitation of a thing that no longer exists.
Led Zeppelin’s drummer is dead, and one need only re-watch The Who’s Super Bowl appearance to presume that watching younger guys imitate Led Zeppelin would be more fun than watching older guys be Led Zeppelin. If singer Robert Plant can ever be lured back from being a critically acclaimed countryfolk musician to go on a reunion-farewell tour, that spectacle would be an expensive, saddening living wake. A competent facsimile of the past is now preferable to the present.
Zoso singer Matt Jernigan is not immodest enough to make that point, but he appears to recognize his band’s awesome business model. Jernigan — a Georgian with a syrupy Southern accent who now makes his living impersonating a Brit who imitated black Southern blues musicians — is an accidental Plant. He and his band were slugging away as an original act in L.A. in the 1990s, making little progress with their own blues-rock, when a manager suggested they try out the Zeppelin tribute concept.
Turns out Jernigan and the guys weren’t bad in their roles and, 15 years later, they still tour aggressively as one of the more elite acts in the disrespected subgenre of live tribute music. The show rolls into the Fox Theatre on March 25.
Jernigan gives much credit to Zeppelin’s huge catalog of great music for his group’s longevity and popularity.
“If you like rock and roll, you have to like them,” Jernigan says.
True, in the vast rock ’n’ roll empire, Led Zeppelin is less a band than a mandatory cultural experience. Their sexy Gandalf music — a catalog that alternates between juicy eroticism and Anglo-dork storytelling — is ubiquitous on classic rock radio. If you liked hard rock in the 1970s, you were there with Zeppelin. If you grew up without a CD player in your car in the 1980s and 1990s, Zeppelin was still there with you, like a friend who always needs a ride. New Led Zeppelin fans continued to be minted through the 1990s, and we’ll see if that has continued in the 2000s. Indeed, “D’yer Mak’er,” the witless but catchy reggae stomp from Houses of the Holy, just started playing in the cafe in which this story is being written.
Led Zeppelin is riper for tribute than any other acts other than The Beatles and Elvis. They also are not easy to ape skillfully. All three instrumentalists — John Bonham on drums, John Paul Jones on bass and Jimmy Page on guitar — are elevated as models of instrumental style and technical competence, while the open-shirted Plant, simultaneously virile and womanly, cracked glass with his breathy shriek.
Zoso is exacting, from the clothes to the gear. The Page guy ( John McDaniel) has the iconic Gibson Les Paul and the double-necked SG; the Bonham guy (Greg Thompson) plays clear amber-colored drums. Jernigan can walk you through specifics on amps.
“That’s the way you get that tone,” he said of instrumental authenticity.
Jernigan is confident in his band’s ability to rock anyone who even passingly likes Led Zeppelin. He recalled a venue owner who, clearly aware of the dubious credibility of the tribute music movement, told customers that, if they didn’t like the band before the third song was over, they could get their admission money back on the way out the door. The owner later said no one left, Jernigan says.
“It’s got something for everyone,” he says. If Jernigan has tired of this lucrative creative dead end, he isn’t talking about it with a newspaper writer. He says the Zeppelin’s huge catalog of nine studio albums, eight of which contain at least one classic track, means the music doesn’t get stale. He claims to not have favorite and least favorite Zeppelin songs. He says he wouldn’t want to pay tribute to any other band.
He acknowledges that, like the real band, the members of his band will someday grow too old to play the young version of the old band. He says he’s not sure when that might happen. As for new fans, Led Zeppelin awareness remains high in American society.
“All I can say is, I’m hoping it’ll just go until people don’t wanna hear it anymore,” he says.
On the Bill
Zoso play the Fox Theatre on Thursday, March 25. Doors at 8:30. The Digger Trends open.
Tickets are $12 to $17. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.