Four women harness the raw power and sensuality of one of the world’s greatest rock and roll bands, in only the way women can.
By Steve Houk
OK, OK, I admit it. Even as a straight, my-hormones-raging-for-girls teenager back in the 70’s, I thought Robert Plant was hot.
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Maybe not in that direct wanna-bed-ya kinda way, but he definitely had this both sides of the fence thing going, appealing to women and men in this oozing sensual way. The whole band and their music did, really, Plant was just the guy with the anatomical jeans and lion’s mane of hair who crystallized what Led Zeppelin was all about: sex. Oh yeah, and great rock and roll.
Maybe that’s why among all the top-shelf bands in the world that cover Zeppelin songs, and there are some darn good-uns out there, the all-woman powerhouse Lez Zeppelin is able to harness both sides of the Zeppelin equation so perfectly, mastering not only the supreme musicianship but also the universal sex appeal of the legendary British band.
And it’s not because the four women in Lez Zep dress scantily or push the female come-hither sexuality way out there, no, nuh uh, they don’t, or at least it’s not their focus. What drives this band is more the innate passion of the genius of Plant/Page/Jones/Bonham’s music wrapped around a sort of mysterious, muliebrous vibe, one which perhaps only women that play Zeppelin can convey, and men, well, might just fall a bit short on.
“Led Zeppelin were completely sexy and male, yet there was something really girly about them,” said Steph Paynes, lead guitarist and founder of Lez Zeppelin. “And there’s this beautiful sort of meeting of androgyny of male and female power in what Led Zeppelin did that made them so sexy. Well, we’re doing that from the other end, and I think when we play like that and bring our female ‘selves’ or whatever you want to call that to this music, and embrace that empowered male posturing, because it’s a natural thing, it just blows people’s minds. That’s why it works so well.”
When you see Lez Zeppelin live for the first time — which includes Paynes, Leesa Squyres on drums, Megan Thomas on bass, and Marlain Angelides on vocals — if there’s any silly novelty lingering in your mind that, hey wow, you’re seeing an all-female Zep band, that goes away damn straight when you witness the sheer skill, power and passion that Paynes and her bandmates bring to their performances every night of their rigorous worldwide tour schedule. Their current tour comes to this area soon, stopping at the State Theater in Falls Church on Friday January 12th, and then in a rare, intimate acoustic setting at The Mansion On O Street in downtown DC on Sunday January 14th.
Paynes, who formed the band on a relative whim a dozen years ago and is truly humbled by the band’s sizable popularity, feels that it is really about the uniqueness and passion of the female psyche tapping into the sexual power of Led Zeppelin. In other words, it’s about way more than looking hot and playing some familiar power chords.
“It’s such an elusive thing that you can’t really describe,” the affable and eloquent Paynes told me on a brief break in the band’s current tour. “I think there’s a certain kind of surrendering to the music and a passion that’s involved in playing it, it’s a sort of freedom. I never considered this a tribute band, I didn’t even know what it was, and just did this for the love of the music. I know that I pour myself completely into it, and it’s a very empowered, very intense thing. It’s not just let’s play this perfectly, let’s imitate them in every move and every way. Here’s this note, here’s that. There are people that do that, they’re sort of impersonators and they are very good at it, and they copy the intensity. But copying the intensity is not the same as having it, and I feel that we have it. We come charging out on that stage in a way, as if we were them. Just embracing the music, as if it’s our own true expression. It’s not our own music, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like we channel ourselves through it. There’s a certain recklessness in that, and there’s a certain individuality. Being women, it allows us to do that, to depart from this impersonation idea, but it also, I think it’s a lot sexier. I think that we have an opportunity to embrace the sort of sexiness of Led Zeppelin in a whole new way.”
Paynes started her musical days a couple decades or so back playing in all-guy bands, having to prove herself just that much more in each one. But she never expected that joining forces with fellow women rockers would be a huge step on her own stairway to rock and roll heaven.
“All my rock bands, they were all guys, all the time. But when I was in living in New York City in like the mid-’90s, there was this band that we formed called One Nine Hundred Box, and it was the first all-girl band I’d ever been in, we were kind of like Jane’s Addictiony kind of playing, really heavy, like heavier than any guy band I’d ever been in. It was very like Led Zeppelin. When the four of us came together in a room with this idea, we started to play, and it exploded. We looked at each other like, ‘What the hell is that?’ That’s just how it was. It was a natural chemistry of musicians playing, very much like Led Zeppelin, which is probably where the seeds for this band to begin with, because we were always being compared like, ‘You guys are like Led Zeppelin.’ It was the same sort of configuration, power trio with a singer. That was the first girl band. That was it. That was the only other one.”
After that first all-girl band broke up, it wasn’t all bad, Paynes used the newfound energy she had discovered to help craft her next group. And that, as they say, was that. What became the first incarnation of Lez Zeppelin — a name which may incinuate an all lesbian lineup but is in fact not the case, according to Paynes — would later go on to become a red-hot must-see for Zeppelin fans across the globe, even prompting Chuck Klosterman of SPIN to say early on that at moments, Lez Zeppelin felt like “the most powerful all-female band in history.”
“That (first) band came very close to making it, everyone was going crazy, all the record companies. But it fell apart, like every other band, yet it led to a lot of things, I learned a lot from that experience. When I formed Lez Zeppelin, I used that, there was no doubt in my mind that women could do it, and could actually probably be more powerful than the guys.”
And even though Paynes and her band have encountered some gender bias over the years, she hasn’t let that get in her way for a second. Especially after people see her band rock the house.
“We’re so used to it. It’s kind of like this MeToo thing. It was such a built-in part of everything that after a while that as a female musician, you just expect this shit. You go onto a stage and how many festivals or whatever, and the sound guys are trying to tell you how to plug in your amps, or they’re looking at you like, ‘Suuure.’ But this is what we’re dealing with. After a while, who the hell cares? I don’t really care what they think anymore. And it doesn’t really hurt us, I think, in any real way, except that it gets annoying sometimes. The bottom line is that in some ways, it helps, the fact that they’re so shocked works to our advantage. They see us and go, ‘Did you see these girls? Oh my GOD.’ ”
Like John Lennon, who also thought his band wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, Paynes had no illusions of success with an all-female Zeppelin band, she really just loved the music and decided to give it a whirl and was as surprised as anyone with its triumphant run, which has included playing major festivals around the globe, as well as countries like Japan and Mumbai.
“I didn’t even think I’d be doing it for more than a year. I just did it for sort of a lark, like, let me get into Jimmy’s stuff and we’ll play once a month and it’ll be fun and whatever. We can go play at the Continental and make 50 bucks. Who the hell knew? Here I am, my whole life has been sidetracked by this crazy thing. It just became this sort of phenomenon. I realized quickly that it was going to work, that everyone wanted to hear it, that I’d be able to book the band, but I really had no idea. That’s how bands are. There’s this sort of magic that either happens or it doesn’t sometimes.”
As far as recreating the guitar virtuosity of undoubtedly her biggest influence, Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Paynes wants to be both familiar and innovative, at least as much as she feels is necessary to both appease die hard fans and keep her invigorated. She even tried out a full backing string section recently that went over very well, and has had a violinist in the band for a while, all ways to keep it fresh.
“There are people, bands who do that, who recreate the live shows. They play those live solos. I don’t know, to me, it’s always not been about that. To me, I would rather, in the spirit of just for me, and how Jimmy plays, if I can get to that point where I can sound like him enough, in the way that it needs to sound, and yet create in the moment something that I would hope maybe he might have played, it’s a lot more interesting for me, and I think the audience. I mean, of course people might want to hear exactly the same thing and go, ‘Wow, that was the same note.’ But I think for me, it’s not been like that, and I would probably get bored of that if it had to be so strict. That is why it feels authentic, even though it’s not maybe the same note, because it’s that same passionate feeling of it being generated from the real place.”
Take one of Zep’s best known songs for example. It’s exhilarating and refreshing to hear Paynes describe with such vigor how she might play around with such a classic tune on a given night, and how some hear echoes of another one of her idols in her playing.
“Someone came up to me recently and said, ‘You know, when you started going into that solo, there was some improvisation in ‘Dazed and Confused,’ and they were right, it is one of the pieces I love most, because there’s so much soloing that’s completely different (from his). The ‘box’ solo is all my own. I may do some of what he does, I throw the eh-eh in there, just to mark it, but everything else is a complete improvisation. It’s different every night, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but it’s not what he does. And then there’s the whole other long solo, which comes in after that, which again, there are certain little things I throw in, I anchor to, and then I go off. This guy was telling me that for that solo, he goes, ‘You know, I heard a lot of Hendrix in your playing.’ And I just nearly cried, I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘When you really let go, it’s like I…am I wrong?’ And I was like, ‘No you’re totally right.’
It is undoubtedly a daunting and courageous undertaking, for either a band of men or women, to attempt to harness the power and glory of a band like Led Zeppelin, and be more than just a live recitation of those old Zep songs you know. But it is that remarkable and distinctive X factor — X chromosomes that is — that separates Lez Zeppelin from the pack. As she appreciates the immense legacy she is perpetuating, Paynes gloriously embraces the niche she and her band have tirelessly carved.
“There’s a great depth to what you could say about Led Zeppelin. So really, what I had done is I had picked the perfect vehicle in a sense, maybe knowingly or maybe subconsciously, that was a way to expose even more of the magic about Led Zeppelin. I’ve had many writers say they’d never looked at Led Zeppelin that way until they saw us. Suddenly they realized how girly they were, and how sexy they were in that way, and how right it felt. But now, the guys could fantasize about whoever’s singing for Lez Zeppelin, because they’re really girls, right? And now we’re talking about transgender, and this and that. But this, Lez Zeppelin, this was all before any of that. Now it almost seems like everything’s up for grabs. All of this stuff is much more in the atmosphere, but when we first started, it was not.”
Lez Zeppelin performs Friday January 12th at The State Theatre, 220 N Washington St, Falls Church, VA 22046. For tickets click here.
Lez Zeppelin presents an intimate, acoustic performance on Sunday January 14th at The Mansion on O Street, 2020 O St. NW, Washington D.C. 20036. For tickets click here.