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Whole lotta Lez Zeppelin

The all-female Led Zeppelin cover band is dynamite

Lez Zeppelin likely is the closest fans can get in 2014 to experiencing Led Zeppelin as they sounded in their heyday.

Many bands dream of hit singles, but performing the same songs every night can wear down even the most optimistic of musicians.

Imagine how the cover band feels.

As the founder and lead guitarist for all-female Led Zeppelin cover band Lez Zeppelin, Steph Paynes admits that thrashing out the pioneering British rock band’s epic classics night after night can be physically draining work.

Yet despite working with a finite amount of source material — Led Zeppelin released nine studio albums before breaking up — she hears endless possibilities in the seminal British rock band’s music.

“The music has this bottomless pit feeling,” Paynes says over the phone from her home in New York City. “I can still listen to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and hear something in it that I might not have picked up on. Even though I’ve been playing a certain song for a long time, there is room to discover something else. We’re constantly reassessing what we’re doing.”

In the 1970s, Led Zeppelin was one of the world’s biggest rock bands. Guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham pioneered the rock-and-roll concept album with an emphasis on loud, dreamy and innovative arrangements widely considered the jumping-off point for heavy metal. They rarely did interviews and rarely released singles, but songs such as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Rock and Roll,” “Black Dog” and “Immigrant Song” endure today.

The band called it quits after Bonham died suddenly in 1980, and the surviving members have resisted a full-scale reunion in the years since. In 2007, Led Zeppelin re-formed for a one-off concert in London with Bonham’s son, Jason, filling in on drums. A more extensive reunion is unlikely — at least at the moment — judging from Plant’s mixed responses to the reunion question in recent interviews.

Thus, Lez Zeppelin likely is the closet fans can get in 2014 to experiencing Led Zeppelin as they sounded in their heyday.

“We do what they did live,” Paynes explains, adding that Lez’s approach is more about a kind of transcendence than note-for-note tribute. “We play with each other like a true rock band of that era did. We play off one another. We listen to each other. We laugh with each other when we’re following each other’s riffs down some crazy path. It becomes a vehicle for our own artistic expressions.”

Toronto will get a better sense of Lez Zeppelin’s chops when they perform at The Phoenix Concert Theatre on Friday, Nov 14, alongside local classic-rock cover act Vag Halen.

Whereas Vag Halen is out as an all-lesbian band, Lez Zeppelin refuses to clarify whether the “Lez” is literal. “Everyone asks [that] and I don’t answer it. It’s much more fun and interesting,” Paynes says. “Led Zeppelin never answered questions; why should we?”

Either way, an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band has been a great marketing hook. The group attracted attention not long after Paynes, who previously played in the band I-900-BOXX, founded the group 10 years ago in New York City. They have since toured around the world, recorded two studio albums and met all three surviving members of Led Zeppelin.

Eddie Kramer, the recording engineer on Led Zeppelin II and Physical Graffiti, produced Lez Zeppelin’s self-titled debut in 2007. Two years later, the ladies re-recorded Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut in an all-analog studio using the same instruments and gear their heroes used 40 years prior.

This commitment to the precise Led Zep sound quality would seemingly separate Lez Zeppelin from other all-female tribute acts, such as AC/DShe, Misstallica, Guns n’ Hoses, Judas Priestess, The Ramonas, Toronto-based Sheezer, Hervana and, of course, Vag Halen.

However, Paynes points out another difference between her band and other all-female classic-rock cover acts.

“I do think that Led Zeppelin has a female energy that wasn’t acknowledged,” she says. “Led Zeppelin’s emotional palette was much broader. They were more androgynous in their look and in some of the feelings they expressed onstage than something like AC/DC.

“Some of the heavy metal that grew out of Led Zeppelin is distinctly and utterly male, if you want to put it that way. It’s missing another dynamic,” she says. “I can listen to AC/DC and have fun with it, but I could never play it for 10 years like I’m playing this music. That goes the same for [Van Halen]. Even though it would take me 10 years to play like Eddie Van Halen perfectly, I wouldn’t even care to do it. Why bother?”

Led Zeppelin fans tend to be skeptical of anyone who tackles the band’s catalogue, so when a group of women appear onstage, the tendency is to be even more skeptical. No matter how much intellectualizing Paynes does in interviews, nothing converts a skeptic like a rock concert.

“People are like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t even believe it!’ Why they don’t believe it is the question, but they do, and the most incredibly hardcore Led Zeppelin fans love us,” she says. “People are just transformed. Half of that transformation is happening because of societal and cultural assumptions that people are overcoming. It has nothing to do with anything we do or say. All we do is show up and deliver this music with incredible passion, skill and sincerity.”

Lez Zeppelin is Steph Paynes on guitar; Megan Thomas on bass and keyboards; Leesa Squyres on drums and Dana Athens on vocals.