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Ottawa NAC Orchestra peform the Music of Led Zeppelin


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What: Windborne’s The Music of Led Zeppelin, with the NAC Orchestra

When & where: May 22 and 23, NAC

Tickets: Starting at $25, at the box office or ticketmaster.ca


Brent Havens wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “I don’t know anyone who wants to hear a muzak version of Led Zeppelin. It’s just not that kind of music.”

That’s a relief. Personally, I was worried when the National Arts Centre announced last fall that its orchestra would be playing two nights of the music of Led Zeppelin. Having invested much of my teenage-hood in the back of crowded cars listening to Black Dog and Whole Lotta Love and What Is and Should Never Be, I was horrified by the thought that Zeppelin muzak would ever be.

Havens had the same thought, albeit for more practical reasons, back in 1995 when he was asked to arrange some of the music of Led Zeppelin for a performance by the Virginia Symphony, in his home state. He had been working with orchestras around the world and composing music for movies and TV, and he was intrigued by the novel request for a symphonic treatment of the greatest heavy metal band (though what passed as metal in the 1960s and early ‘70s now seems like cups and cakes compared to the splenetic, frenetic metal of today).

Havens said sure, let’s do it, but no muzak. “And secondly, even if people did come to it they would probably be more of the classical folks, and they don’t know who Led Zeppelin is,” Havens says in a phone interview from Virginia Beach. “So my point was, who’s your audience here? We want to bring in a different crowd, someone new.”

He said to the conductor and promoter who had approached him with the idea, “Look, let’s put a band of studio musicians together, get a killer singer, and wrap that with a 50- to 75-piece orchestra.”

They announced the show and, quicker than you can say there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, the 1,000 tickets to the concert sold out. “We went, ‘This is a little more than we were expecting’.”

Almost 20 years later, Havens oversees Windborne Music, a stable of touring productions, each with the music of rock superstars — Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Queen, the Doors, the Who, Michael Jackson and, soon to be added, the Rolling Stones. Each “wraps” an orchestra around a rock band, for Zeppelin one led by singer Randy Jackson of the New Orleans band Zebra.

I can’t imagine a band other than Zeppelin with music more suited to a symphonic performance, but then, I think the delicate trill of guitar played by Jimmy Page at the 3:40-minute mark of The Song Remains the Same is like a sublime moment of Beethoven.

That’s exactly the sort of fandom that Havens knew he had to accommodate. “Zep heads, they know every lick of the guitar. They’ve heard these tunes: You probably know every lick of every solo that Jimmy Page did, because you played it 50-million times when you were a kid.”

Closer to 40 million times, perhaps, but he knows he has to treat the Zeppelin canon with respect. The Song Remains the Same is on the setlist, as is the most obvious choice, the mighty, hypnotic Kashmir. “Certainly, we’re not getting out of the building without doing that song,” he says.

He doesn’t want to reveal the entire setlist “because we do like to dig a little deeper into the catalogue.” He will say that Going to California works well with the band and orchestra, as does The Rain Song, “because John Paul Jones did that synth string thing.” Also expect I’m Gonna Crawl and Since I’ve Been Loving You. “You’ve got to hear that with the orchestra, it’s mind-blowing,” he says. I tell him a meandering anecdote about once buying a 1978 Camaro and putting in an Alpine stereo and then going for a drive and listening to Since I’ve Been Loving You.

Perhaps a lot of people have such memories, if the 18-year run of Windborne’s Zeppelin experience is any indication.

“The music stands up,” he says. “It’s different than what’s out there today. I don’t think the pop music from today – the Britney Spears’ stuff, the folks from American Idol, The Voice and all that — I’m not sure that’s going to last for any length of time.

“We’re talking 40 years here. There was just something about this music, the richness of the music, the newness, the inventiveness, the harmonic structures that these guys used in a lot of this,” he says. “The songs actually took you on a voyage and left you feeling, ‘Wow, this is amazing stuff.’”

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  • 2 weeks later...

This show is coming to Pittsburgh in July with Randy Jackson from Zebra. I think I will go even though it is only three days before Jason Bonham's concert (which I am also attending). I had been hoping that someone saw this version.

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And here is the review. I didn't make it, in hindsight, wish I had.


The National Arts Centre Orchestra got the led out this week with the help of a slick American production company that specializes in rocking out opera halls across North America. Founded by composer/conductor Brent Havens, Windborne Music works with orchestras to mount classic-rock programs of music by Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Queen and others.

Originally conceived in 1995, The Music of Led Zeppelin was their first baby, and it’s grown into a wonderfully vibrant creature, as a less-than-full Southam Hall audience witnessed on Wednesday. The first of Windborne’s two nights with NACO happened to conflict with playoff hockey, which evidently put a damper on attendance.

In hindsight, I’d say it was the Zep junkies, not Sens fans, who got the better show. With Havens on the wand and a core band that featured banshee wailer Randy Jackson on vocals, along with the orchestra’s brass, string, woodwind and percussion sections, it was a rich, satisfying treatment of some of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits.

Of course, singing Plant night after night isn’t easy, and there are legions of cringe-inducing wannabes. I held my breath until Jackson proved his rockworthiness, which he accomplished on the sizzling opener, Good Times Bad Times. Before the end of the first set, the crowd was cheering when he hit a particularly high note or stretched out a howl, such as the one in Since I’ve Been Loving You.

Fact is, a large part of what made the show work was Jackson, who also acted as frontman for the evening (awkwardly announcing the National Arts Centre ‘ahkistrah’ in his Southern drawl). His singing voice is incredibly convincing, sounding more like Robert Plant than the rock legend himself. A frizzy-haired relic of the 80s metal scene, the New Orleans native didn’t try to act like Plant, thankfully, and instead came across as a genuine fan as he shared stories of his connection with the music.

Behind him, tucked in the centre of the stage was the touring band, consisting of the fleet-fingered George Cintron on guitar, Dan Clemens on bass, Powell Randolph on drums and Allegra on electric violin. The American group was flanked by the Ottawa-based orchestra musicians who had one eye on the sheet music and one on Havens.

Anchored by the proper rock elements and glammed up with sophisticated lighting design, the songs became larger and more majestic with the extra padding of the orchestra. Instead of smoothing everything out, Havens’ string arrangements energized Ramble On, enhanced the mood of The Rain Song and added an unexpected flourish to Kashmir. The brass in What Is and What Should Never Be gave it the flair of a processional, which then morphed into pure rock ‘n’ roll excitement on Black Dog.

The volume mysteriously increased during the second half of the concert, which featured The Song Remains The Same, Going to California, Dancing Days and a run through Moby Dick that starred Randolph playing a wildly inventive drum solo. Allegra’s electric violin was stunning on All of My Love, a bit of calm before the guitar-whipped storm of Heartbreaker, Whole Lotta Love and Immigrant Song. To close, there was a magnificent version of Stairway to Heaven, complete with disco ball and flutes, that emphasized the lovely melody of the slow-dance staple. In all, it was a fresh take on the old tunes performed by talented musicians who seem to have a real appreciation for the material.

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This show is coming to Pittsburgh in July with Randy Jackson from Zebra. I think I will go even though it is only three days before Jason Bonham's concert (which I am also attending). I had been hoping that someone saw this version.

I saw Randy Jackson and NOPO under the direction of Brent Havens, perform Led Zeppelin at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre in New Orleans, it was an awesome experience!

Randy Jackson, IMHO is one of the most underrated rock vocalists ever born, he more than has the pipes! We are huge Zebra fans!

And he is a true Zeppelin fan!

It also was great because he was playing to a hometown crowd!

Also, Zeppelin music lends itself well to an orchestra rendition, it is complex, dynamic music.

I think it is performed with the utmost respect.

I loved the whole experience and would go again.

B) peace!

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