Steph Paynes didn’t intend to start a tribute band. In fact, she says, she didn’t even know what one was. But after poring over the catalog of one of rock’s most legendary bands, Led Zeppelin, she knew she had to find a way to play it.
“I didn’t even know what a ‘tribute band’ was,” Paynes said. “I simply thought this was the greatest music out there, and oh my god, wouldn’t it just turn me on to play it.”
She thought, too, that it would be fun to play these classic rock songs with an all-female lineup of musicians. It was that combination – women taking on the hard-rocking style and swagger of Led Zeppelin – that has been turning heads and exciting audiences since Lez Zeppelin hit the scene about nine years ago.
They’ve tried to classify their act, shrinking from the “tribute band” label, but the best term they’ve come up with to describe what they do, what they are, is a “she-incarnation,” Paynes says. Sex and gender are, as would be expected, wound into the mix, and Paynes has found it’s a complex and compelling relationship.
“[Led Zeppelin] were considered very sexually oriented; their music was very sexy, if you will. Also, they were considered weirdly sexy in this protypical male way, which when you inverted the gender, was really very interesting,” Paynes said. “So on one hand, they were considered macho, and yet they were very feminine in how they presented themselves. … They were androgynous in their own way. So when women came out and did it, with our long hair, coming at it from the opposite mirror image, it was really, really interesting, and it still is.”
Finding musicians willing to take on the technically-demanding Led Zeppelin catalog and deliver emotional, dynamic performances in the way of their predecessors was no simple undertaking.
“It’s not easy to find people – anyone, male or female, honestly – who can play this music and do it in not only the right spirit, but with everything it takes to do,” Paynes said, later adding. “It was tough to find, but strangely and magically I have managed to find other women who are up to that task.”
The unique combination caught the attention of the press. In particular, Paynes said, some critical praise from Spin magazine’s Chuck Klosterman in 2005 was a turning point for the band’s success.
With Klosterman suggesting the group may just sound like “the most powerful all-female band in rock history,” they were thrust into the attention of a national audience.
The band hit the recording studio, after some international touring, releasing its first album in 2007.
“There was a lot of skepticism –why rerecord Led Zeppelin material? Really what we thought was, we are interpreting this material in a different way, and people were hungry for it,” Paynes said. For its self-titled debut album, the group recorded a sampling of a song from each of Led Zeppelin’s first six albums, along with two original tracks, and enlisted the talents of Eddie Kramer, formerly a Led Zeppelin recording engineer.
For their next album, released in 2010, the band went even deeper into its study of Led Zeppelin’s music and methods. They took on recording the band’s first album, front to back, with vintage instruments and gear authentic to the record’s original 1969 release.
“It was, quite frankly, very obsessive,” Paynes said. “There were moments when we were recording this record without the vocal on it, half the time we didn’t know which one we were listening to – the original record or us. It started to get so creepily authentic; we were so into it.”
While admitting to the intensity of taking on such “an almost impossible task,” she praised the endeavor, saying that it helped her hear the music she had been playing for years on a new level. In fact, the group is currently recording its third album in the same manner, this time tackling Led Zeppelin’s sophomore effort.
“You’re really trying to think and play like the greatest rock musicians ever, and it’s heavy stuff,” Paynes said. “But what a great thing to do.”
The band, frequent and longtime performers at the State Theatre, will be returning to the venue Friday for a benefit show to support Gesundheit Institute. Founded by Patch Adams, the real-life doctor and philanthropist who inspired Robin Williams’ role in the 1998 film of the same name, Gesundheit Institute offers free health care through various projects.
The concert is aptly titled “Whole Lot of Care” – a play on the classic Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.”
“We were happy to do it,” Paynes said. “We think it’s a fantastic cause. I can’t think of anything more important to anyone, to any American, than having access to good health care.”
• For more information about Lez Zeppelin, visit lezzeppelin.com.