Led Zeppelin Experience brings the noise

By Jim Barber, Special to QMI Agency

Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, Jason Bonham gets to do something he would have only dreamed about doing a few years ago.

He gets to drum alongside his famous father, John, the skin-bashing legend who made up one quarter of one of the biggest and most influential rock bands of all time: Led Zeppelin.

The younger Bonham, who took up the drums as a vocation after his father's untimely death in 1980, has been touring the world with a show called Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience.

During the song, When the Levee Breaks, from the fourth Zeppelin album, Jason turns around to the large video screen behind him, and his dad appears, and begins to bash out the familiar drum pattern that starts the song off.

Together, the Bonhams play the song, as Jason's backing band churns out the chords, usually to an audience that is completely enthralled with this time-bending percussion duet.

"I get the crowd to shout 'Bonzo' (his dad's nickname) as loud as they can. And I look back at the screen and say, 'Can you give me a hand on this one?' And all of a sudden he appears and that beat kicks in, and the whole place goes crazy. Everyone stands up," Bonham told QMI Agency during a recent tour stop in New York City.

The tour is coming to Casino Rama this Saturday at 9 p.m.

The casino is just north of Barrie, the hometown of Daniel MacMaster, who was the lead singer in one of Bonham's earlier bands, simply called Bonham.

MacMaster auditioned to be the band's singer and co-writer, and helped the band achieve pretty decent success, especially on the first album, 1989's Disregard of Timekeeping, which featured the hit song and video, Wait For You.

"I had this great piece of music with no title, and I kept saying this is going to be an instrumental. And the first thing that Dan did, he started singing over this instrumental while we were rehearsing. And he came up with this vocal hook, and I was like, 'OK, it's not going to be an instrumental anymore.' And that song ended up being Wait For You. And that was the first thing he did, at the first rehearsal," Bonham said.

"He was this good-looking Canadian boy. He looked like a frontman from the moment he walked into the room. He was such a character, such a sweet, innocent chap when I first met him in 1988," Bonham added.

MacMaster died in March 2008 from a combination of pneumonia and a particularly virulent strain of the strep A infection, in Thunder Bay where he was living with his wife, Tina McCallum, and two children.

"Daniel was another tragic loss to the music world, somebody that was taken from us way too young," Bonham said.

"He was a big kid. He was so playful and energetic and he loved music ... we reconnected about a year before he passed away, and we were writing each other. He was a fantastic man, and it was very, very sad when he died."

When his father died in 1980, Bonham changed career paths.

From an early age, he raced motorcross bikes, and fully intended to make that his career.

When Bonzo died, then 14- year-old Jason picked up the mantle in earnest and began to work hard on his drumming and songwriting.

By age 16, he had recorded his first album with his first band, Airrace. Then came the Bonham project, which included a second album, Mad Hatter, recorded with MacMaster in 1992.

Bonham played drums for the surviving members of Led Zeppelin -- Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones -- at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary gig in 1988.

Over the years, he became a top skin-basher for hire, and worked with both Plant and Page at different times over the years.

In December 2007, Led Zeppelin performed for the first time since 1988 at a tribute show in London, prompting speculation of a full-fledged reunion and tour.

But Plant was not interested in a permanent reunion. Page, Jones and the younger Bonham did work together, jamming and writing material, but nothing materialized.

In late 2009, Bonham saw the Beatles tribute show Rain, which utilized video screens showing old movies, photos, and included stories and anecdotes.

"And that's when I got excited about this project. I wanted something that would be personal, and I felt I could use some old home movie footage and make it a personal show," Bonham said.

"I feel very honoured that I get to go out and have a bit of fun in between my other musical jobs, and it's like my way of saying thanks to the old man," he added. "I never had a chance to tell him that I thought he was fantastic. So this, for me, on a nightly basis, is my way of doing it."

John Bonham was known as a true party animal on the road with Led Zeppelin, and it was his hedonistic lifestyle that led to his untimely demise after a massive drinking binge.

At home, though, he was John Bonham, doting father.

"Every time he was home, 110% of his focus was on me. There was nothing to do with music at home. I was racing the bikes, and we would get up at 5 a.m. and he would drive me to the race. We had a whole different relationship than most people would imagine we had," he said.

"But he was like two totally different people. For me, he was just fun to be around. He was a normal, everyday dad. And I tell the audiences, just because he played in Led Zeppelin doesn't mean he wouldn't make me go to bed on time, or do my homework. He was a real dad, a disciplinarian, because that was the way he was brought up, too ... And you especially had to mind your manners at the dinner table."

John Bonham is ranked today as one of the top rock drummers of all time, and had a reputation for hitting the drums incredibly hard.

The younger Bonham said this was all an illusion.

"In the early days, it looked like he would hit really, really hard. You have to really check where he is holding the stick in his hand, and see that he's not striking that hard. For him, it was all in the wrist. He was really a jazz drummer that came into the rock world. All his influences were jazz guys."

During a show by the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience, which also features Tony Catania on guitar, Stephen Leblanc on keyboards, bassist Dorian Heartstrong and singer James Dylan, songs representing each era of Led Zeppelin make it into the set list.

Bonham said one of the reasons Led Zeppelin continues to be massively popular is that the band's music transcends time and even genre.

"Look at Kashmir. Millions of bands have tried to replicate that vibe now. But when you are the originators of something, it's amazing. Who would have thought of having this Middle Eastern feeling track that ended up being so iconic.

"And then you've got a soft, lovely song like All My Love. And I'm Gonna Crawl, which I still think is one of the most beautiful songs they ever did. And then you have something lighter like Fool in the Rain.

"If they really wanted to, they could have written great pop songs. The songs are just good songs. They weren't afraid to try different things. They didn't say, 'Well this doesn't sound like us, so we can't continue writing it.' They just wrote."

Bonham is also involved in another supergroup of sorts.

At the behest of Kevin Shirley, one of the top rock/metal producers in the business, Bonham linked up with former Deep Purple/Black Sabbath singer/bassist Glenn Hughes, blues sensation Joe Bonamassa and keyboard sensation Derek Sherinian to form Black Country Communion, a no-holds-barred, kick-ass classic rock ensemble that has already produced two killer albums in about 18 months, and a chart-topping DVD.

"We still look at each other and laugh at how amazing it's been for something that was just supposed to be a bit of fun on the side," Bonham said.

"The first album took four days to record and the second one just 10. I really look forward to the next album. I think this is going to be an ongoing thing in my career, too," he added.

For more information on Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience, visit www.jblze.com.

Tickets for the Casino Rama show on Saturday are available at the box office, or through Ticketmaster online.

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