It's a chilly Saturday night downtown, and I've just met up with my friend Toxic JuJu to take in "The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Led Zeppelin" concert at Dodge Theatre. I didn't know what to wear for this do I throw on some jeans and a Led Zeppelin tee shirt, or do I wear a nice pantsuit, which is superfancy for me?
I went with the pantsuit, but it turns out I would've fit in either way. Of the 5,000 or so people here, most are obviously rock fans, running around in Led Zeppelin tee shirts, drinking beer from plastic cups, and screaming "Rock and roooooll!" But there are many symphony fans, as well, congregating around the wine-and-cheese-tasting stand in their formal best and smelling like the perfume counter at Macy's.
JuJu and I take our seats shortly after the program begins. I'm excited, because Led Zeppelin's one of those bands I never got to see live, and since drummer John Bonham choked to death on his vomit after ingesting an alleged 56 shots of vodka 26 years ago, this is as close as I'll ever get.
When the symphony starts performing "All My Love," it's a melancholy moment for those who know what the song's about. Robert Plant wrote the tune for his son Karac, who died from a stomach infection in 1977, and as guest vocalist Randy Jackson croons, "Ours is the fire, all the warmth we can find/He is a feather in the wind," I find my eyes welling up with tears.
But Toxic JuJu is laughing her ass off because of something I told her earlier. All she can think about are Robert Plant's nuts in my mom's face.
Today (January 20) also happens to be my mother's 60th birthday, and it's fitting that I'm listening to the music of Led Zeppelin, because when my mother was pregnant with me in 1976 (four years before Bonham died), she had the most insane run-in with the band at a Holiday Inn in Indianapolis, Indiana.
My mother was working as a waitress, and Led Zeppelin was on tour for the Presence album. Mom had no idea who Led Zeppelin was when Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham came downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast (Jimmy Page must have been doing his hair or something). Here is my mother's version of events:
The trio walks up to the register to pay for their meal, and Bonham hits the floor and starts convulsing violently. Plant tells my mother that Bonham is having a seizure, and asks her to help him hold Bonham down and grab Bonham's tongue so he doesn't swallow it. So my mother, who is seven months pregnant with me, straddles John Bonham's stomach while Plant kneels down in front of her and grabs his head.
My mom's reaching for Bonham's tongue as he's thrashing about, and everybody in the room is cracking up. My mom doesn't know what's so funny until she looks up.
Plant is wearing skintight cutoff jean shorts with a big hole in the crotch. When she looks up, Plant's testicles are hanging out of the hole and dangling right in her face.
As this is happening, my mom gets a finger in Bonham's mouth, and he damned near bites it off. She had to get a tetanus shot afterward.
So now, any time I'm with my mom and a Led Zeppelin song comes on the radio, I say, "Hey, mom deez nuts!"
I whisper "deez nuts" to Toxic JuJu, and now she's cracking up during a really sad song. Luckily, everyone nearby is so into the performance that they ignore us.
This classical-meets-classic-rock program is the brain child of Virginia-based, booty-shakin' composer Brent Havens, who is guest conductor tonight. The 50-piece orchestra plays Led Zeppelin songs with a five-piece rock band headed up by guest vocalist Randy Jackson (from prog-metal band Zebra, not Jacko's sibling or the American Idol judge).
Jackson's bluesy wail mimics Plant's high-range vocals better than anybody I've ever heard, and his backing band is phenomenal.
Guitarist George Cintron (Maniac, Enrique Iglesias) performs a finger-tappin' fretwork solo during "Heartbreaker" that Eddie Van Halen might envy. Bassist Dan Clemens and drummer Powell Randolph (both of Hanover Fist) bring down the thunder on "Moby Dick," Bonham's percussion opus that was a staple of every Led Zeppelin show.
But it is Amanda Armstrong and her electric violin (shaped like a blue Flying V guitar) that draw absolute awe. Armstrong nails the solo on "Stairway to Heaven," nuanced note for nuanced note it could have come right off the record.
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And all of this with the booming backdrop of the orchestra. Many of Led Zeppelin's songs (particularly those from the In Through the Out Door album) contained string arrangements, courtesy of Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, one of the most underrated musicians in rock history. Those arrangements, coupled with Havens' scores for guitar-based Zeppelin songs such as "Black Dog," come blasting out at us like a tornado from a tunnel, making every song sound epic, almost overwhelming.
By the end of the two-hour-plus program, everyone rock band and classic symphony fans alike are on their feet, giving the band and orchestra their umpteenth standing ovation of the night. The woman next to JuJu raises her beer cup and screams, "To the Led!"
Immediately, people around us raise their cups and join the toast, sloshing beer all over my pantsuit.
Crap. I knew I should have just worn my Led Zeppelin tee shirt.