It was literally a drum solo with four sticks: Jason Bonham thundering through “Moby Dick,” from Led Zeppelin II, with his late father, John “Bonzo” Bonham, during the first set of Jason Bonham: The Led-Zeppelin Experience at New York’s Best Buy Theater on November 8th. The elder Bonham appeared via audio and film clips of the drummer playing the song live with Led Zeppelin, while his son doubled and elaborated on the snare gunshots and kick-drum-and-tom bombs in synchronized real time.
It was a tour de force illusion. It was also sincere theater. Jason introduced “Moby Dick” by telling his audience about an interview John gave in 1970 in which he said he hoped to play drums side by side with his son one day at London’s Royal Albert Hall. For Jason, who was 14 when his father died in September, 1980, a virtual duet will always be as good as it gets.
“This is my story, what my dad and Led Zeppelin meant to me,” Jason said in a prerecorded overture, accompanied by family photos and films of the childhood and teenage Bonzo. The order in Jason’s comment was intentional. The Led-Zeppelin Experience is comprised entirely of Zeppelin music, played by Jason with an able, spirited band: guitarist Tony Catania, bassist Michael Devin, keyboard and guitar player Stephen LeBlanc and singer James Dylan. But the night — which went the distance from “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “The Lemon Song” to “The Ocean” and “Kashmir” — is mostly about his dad’s titanic presence in that music and the giant absence created by his death. “Thank You” came with more home movies, while Jason, a keen student of Zeppelin concert bootlegs, revived and built on his father’s live improvisations in “How Many More Times” and the extended closing turbulence of “Dazed and Confused.”
There was the inevitable “Stairway to Heaven,” and Catania did the theremin honors in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love.” But like two other cut-above-tribute enterprises — Beatles specialists and session pros the Fab Faux and Zappa Plays Zappa, led by another true heir, guitarist Dweezil Zappa — Jason’s Zeppelin Experience is a band of players, not actors. Dylan has none of Plant’s hair and more of AC/DC’s Brian Johnson in his mid-range rasp, which was effective in “I’m Gonna Crawl,” a surprise pulled from 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Catania enacted certain Page solos to the letter, but he took advantage of the slow-blues terrain in “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” blazing his own way between Page’s keynote licks.
The other Zeppelin members did not appear on screen, and Jason mentioned Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones gratefully but in passing, during a segment about the weight of replacing his father at the 2007 reunion show in London. Instead, he shared memories that personalized the canon, like the time in 1968 when Jason, only two years old, heard spooky organ music coming from the family stereo. It was his dad playing Side Two of his new band’s first album — and the cue for Jason’s group to hit the heavy church of “Your Time Is Gonna Come.”
“I got to play with my heroes,” Jason remarked about the ’07 concert, except “one of them wasn’t there.” In this show, he gets to have Bonzo in the house every night — a reunion, at last, of father and son.