Lez Zeppelin, the female Led Zeppelin tribute band, had an idea that there might be someone special in the audience when they were playing their gig at the Garage in north London. But it wasn't until they ended with a swirling, shrieking, shuddering encore of “Whole Lotta Love” that the band's guitarist Steph Paynes saw a shock of white hair by the bar at the back of the venue and knew for certain that her alter ego, the real Jimmy Page, was there.
“I'd dreamt of that moment for so long,” says Paynes, who put the group together 10 years ago in New York. “In my mind, I play as if he's out there every night. But this was a real fight-or-flight moment.”
Four women tramping over the hallowed ground of Led Zeppelin's musical legacy; what would Page make of it? As the band left the stage to tumultuous applause, he strode purposefully towards the dressing room and banged on the door. “He came in and he was gushing,” Paynes recalls. “'Finally, this is the way it should be done,' he told us. 'Each and every one of you is brilliant'.”
Page corroborates their story. “They played the Led Zeppelin music with an extraordinary sensuality,” he proclaims, some days later. “They certainly played with an energy and passion that highlighted their superb musicianship.” This is high praise from the man who knows better than anyone what it takes to perform the songs of Led Zeppelin, and speaks volumes about a group which has managed to elevate the often tacky business of being a tribute act into a creditable art form.
The first thing you notice about Lez Zeppelin is, of course, that they are all women. But by the end of the show it is the “superb musicianship” and obsessive attention to detail which they bring to every facet of their performance that leaves a more lasting impression. Paynes, who either plays a Les Paul or a double-necked, six and 12-stringed guitar, has long black hair and a saturnine look. Shannon Conley, who has long, blonde hair and a lean, willowy figure, sings in a high, throaty glissando, and plays occasional harmonica.
The bass player Megan Thomas also plays keyboards (with bass pedals) and mandolin on certain numbers, while the drummer Leesa Harrington-Squyres performs with a muscular force majeure that recalls the behind-the-beat heft of the late John Bonham with uncanny accuracy. She has even mastered the no-sticks sequence during the drum solo which comprises most of “Moby Dick”.
They are good by any standard. But the fact that they are women, strutting and preening like rock gods of old, plays odd tricks on your mind. For all their much avowed machismo on and off the stage, there was a duality about Led Zeppelin and their music which was not fully appreciated at the time. Hearing Conley singing Robert Plant's melodies in exactly the same keys as the original recordings, the thought occurs that Plant (in those days, anyway) was a man with a woman's voice. And seeing Paynes playing her guitar with a violin bow and making her lithe, lunging stage moves, you realize how slight and coquettish Page was.
“What Jimmy was witnessing was complete and utter passionate surrender to his music and all of its moods, all of its sexuality, by musicians who are in a place where we can do that,” Paynes says with a typical flourish. “I think he was kind of stunned.”
Paynes is kind of stunning. A committed Anglophile, she first came to Britain as an exchange student to study at the London School of Economics. She later formed a band in London and got herself some work writing for the NME and other journals. She played in a militant all-girl punk band called 1-900 Boxx who featured in the movie Rhythm Thief and she toured in Ronnie Spector's band.
Everyone thought she had gone mad when she announced her intention to form an all-female band playing the music of Led Zeppelin and the task has not been easily accomplished. Lez Zeppelin is currently on its third vocalist (“Roberta III”), second bassist and third drummer. (“The guitarist remains the same,” Paynes says.)
But the band has been gaining fans in high places ever since. Their recent visit to the UK began with an appearance at the Isle of Wight festival, where the promoter, John Giddings, had booked them as the opening act on the Big Top stage.
Paynes actually first met Page in October 2012 when she buttonholed him at a party after the New York premiere of the Zeppelin movie Celebration Day.
“At one point I reached out and touched his face,” she says. “It was completely autonomic. I had to feel if he was real. I said, 'Jimmy, I just want to tell you, it's really hard being you'. He laughed and said, 'I know'.”
Will she and Page meet again? “I hope so,” she says.
“I hope it's just the beginning and not the end.”