In what will no doubt be viewed as one of the best concerts of the current Santa Barbara Bowl season, on Tuesday night Heart pounded out beloved songs from its own catalog and that of the mighty Led Zeppelin.
Zep's shadow loomed large from the start, thanks to a thrilling opening set by Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience, Bonham being the son of the original band's late wild-man drummer god, John "Bonzo" Bonham.
Now, I'm too young to have seen Led Zeppelin perform live, but their music was the soundtrack of my adolescence, and to my young-ish ears Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience sounded great.
Vocalist James Dylan nicely captured the sound of Robert Plant in his prime, hitting those high notes that Plant isn't crazy enough to try anymore. The rest of the band — Tony Catania (guitar), Dorian Heartsong (bass) and, of course, Bonham (drums) — really rocked out, doing hard justice to the Zeppelin personnel and material. Until the surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunite, if that ever happens, this is probably as good as it's going to get. Except when Heart plays Led Zeppelin.
But let's first talk about Heart playing Heart. Fronted as always by sisters Ann (vocals) and Nancy Wilson (guitar), Heart kicked it off with "Barracuda," which pairs a Zep-worthy riff ("Chug chugga chug chugga chug chugga chug chugga chug ... ") with Ann's banshee-like vocals, still among the best in the biz.
Heart went on to play an outstanding collection of songs from throughout their illustrious career, ranging from other classic rock gems ("Magic Man" and "Crazy On You," which closed their main set), to power ballads from their 1980s resurgence ("What About Love," "These Dreams" and "Alone"), to a feminist anthem ("Even It Up") to a new one about soldiers suffering from PTSD/shellshock/soldier's heart ("Dear Old America").
Nancy also did an angelic cover of Elton John's "I Need You to Turn To," accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.
In an evening filled with highlights, the extended encore was arguably the real treat, with Heart joined by Bonham and Catania to perform yet more Led Zeppelin classics.
The Wilson sisters kicked this part of the show off with a magical version of "Battle of Evermore," with Ann and Nancy singing the Robert Plant and Sandy Denny parts, respectively, and with Ann brilliantly echoing the words "bring it back" at the end. This was followed by a couple of riffy rockers, "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Immigrant Song," then "The Rain Song," a somewhat surprising but inspired choice.
Hearing the last two songs of the evening performed live was almost a religious experience for me, and probably for many others in the audience, some of whom, as Bonham joked earlier in the evening, were probably conceived to this music. The monumental, Eastern-influenced "Kashmir" is one of Zep's finest, and Ann and the band absolutely nailed it. Then there was the iconic "Stairway to Heaven," with Nancy playing the familiar acoustic guitar intro, and the intensity building to a climax enhanced by a guest gospel choir as Ann belted it out.
Heart and Led Zeppelin — a match made in heaven.
Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience Setlist
Rock and Roll
Over the Hills and Far Away
What Is and What Should Never Be
Nobody's Fault But Mine
When the Levee Breaks
Whole Lotta Love
What About Love
Kick It Out
Even It Up
Dog & Butterfly
I Need You to Turn To (Elton John cover
These Dreams Alone
Dear Old America
Crazy On You
Encore (Led Zeppelin covers)
Battle of Evermore
Misty Mountain Hop
The Rain Song
Stairway to Heaven
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.