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01 Whole Lotta Love
03 Stairway To Heaven
04 The Crunge
05 Dancing Days, Pt. 1
06 When The Levee Breaks
07 Dancing Days, Pt. 2
08 Black Dog
09 No Quarter
10 Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
11 Good Times Bad Times
12 The Rain Song
Led Zeppelin were pioneers of hard rock – and are also one of the hardest rock bands to cover. I’ll bet Beth Hart believes that too. With her new album A Tribute to Led Zeppelin, she proves she’s well up to the job.
Parts and arrangements and solos can be copied. But more than any other classic rock band, Zep had a singular sound – a dark, slathery, passion-soaked cave-howl – that’s as hard to convincingly reproduce as, say, Coltrane or Debussy. A sound that feels so integral to the songs that putting one’s own spin on them seems almost out of bounds, nearly futile.
Beth Hart has topped the Billboard Blues Album chart some half a dozen times. Now she does the near impossible: recording a tribute containing many of Zep’s most beloved songs in versions that, while staying true to the originals, subtly reinvent the arrangements, while showcasing the locomotive chops of one of the great blues-rock singers of our time.
A Tribute to Led Zeppelin was produced by Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Linkin Park, Dave Matthews) and engineered by Doug McKean (Delta Rae, Maroon 5, Meat Loaf). It replaces the archaic, though personality-laden Mellotron with real (or real-sounding) strings, giving these parts a more authentic orchestral color than in the originals. But the difference isn’t jarring, it’s interesting. Importantly, the songs are mixed so as to push their hard, blues-based meat and bones front and center. Just like the originals.
Hart plays the Robert Plant role with due respect and an energy all her own. Having a female voice, extraordinarily ballsy as it is, helps her avoid the copycat syndrome that bedevils many bands that try to replace iconic lead singers. Think of Adam Lambert, who sings the hell out of Queen’s hits but still can’t help sounding like an ersatz Freddie Mercury. Hart emulates but does not channel Robert Plant; she’s Beth Hart from first note to last.
First up: “Whole Lotta Love.” As in the original, the song’s seemingly unstoppable riff does stop, for a good long psychedelic breakdown, giving Hart’s band some self-indulgent space-time. There’s an avant-garde spark to the “noodling” in this version.
But the set really comes into its own with “Kashmir,” the song that definitively blew my mind when I first heard it back in high school in the ‘70s in my friend Charlie’s basement. The band and singer are equal partners. Hart dives into the cold depths with bluesy interjections and a muted cool in the bridge. Her voice betrays in a lived-in, seen-it-all quality that Plant didn’t have at the time. The young Englishman filled that absence with earnest artiness. Hart has no need of anything like that.
If “Kashmir”’s cross-rhythms broke rhythmic ground for rock music, “The Grunge” pulverized the pavement. Drummer Dorian Crozier gets tightly funky here, reminding us what a spectacular musician John Bonham was (though even he couldn’t find the bridge). Hart puts a tragicomic gravel in her voice similar to what Plant did with his high register.
Two medleys get a little playful with the source material. A straight-ahead “Dancing Days” startlingly breaks down into “When the Levee Breaks.” Hart is at her shouting best on that song’s titanic coda. “No Quarter” is artsy by nature; Hart and the band dig into it with authenticity – and it makes a very smooth medley with a version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” that has an orchestral power that feels almost Beethovenian.
Wisely Hart doesn’t switch the genders in the lyrics to “Black Dog.” Hers is a faithful rendition, except for an acknowledgment that the age of the fadeout is long past. She does tangle genders amusingly on “Good Times Bad Times,” sings this iconically hard rocker with all the bluesy fire she can muster while giving the finger to the institutional misogyny that plagued much of the blues tradition that Led Zeppelin mined (and stole from).
The album closes with a lush rendition of “The Rain Song,” to which Hart adds some fetching vocalise at the end.
What about “Stairway to Heaven?” you ask. Hart gives the overplayed epic’s straightforward melody a touch of jazzy rhythmic interpretation, as if Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra were hovering in the corner of the recording studio. That’s a great approach to a song so familiar it can drift by without making much impression – Beth Hart makes you want to listen again. Meanwhile, whoever played the solo (either Cavallo or Tim Pierce, who share six-string duties) does a convincing job with it, while the orchestral sounds give the song’s classic raveup a symphonic gravity.
So if you thought you never needed to hear “Stairway to Heaven” again, this one’s actually worth a listen – and more. Like the whole album. Beth Hart’s engagement with Led Zeppelin finds the singer in her prime, and for a talent like her that’s saying a lot.