I am a very big fan of Led Zeppelin, and am happy to say I saw them in concert back in 1977. “Stairway to Heaven” is the song with which they are most identified, and I’m OK with that, even though other of their songs are my favorites (“Since I’ve Been Lovin’ You” and “Kashmir” come to mind). I thought it was odd that they were chosen as recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors given for lifetime contributions to American culture. It’s not that they are undeserving, but there are a lot of American artists who have not received this honor, and even a Zep fan like me thinks someone like Little Richard should be first in line.
The highlight of the Honors ceremony was the performance of “Stairway to Heaven” by Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart. Heart was a band that always owed a lot to Led Zeppelin, particularly Ann’s vocals, which reminded one of Robert Plant. Since the recipients attend the performance, I’d imagine there is a good bit of pressure on the artists on stage … it’s one thing for Heart to cover “Stairway” in their own concerts, quite another to sing the song in the presence of Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones, along with Barack and Michelle Obama. Ann Wilson pulled it off; Plant ended up with eyes full of tears.
The arrangement was also impressive. First you had the Wilson sisters, then a band quietly added their sound to the mix. The drummer was Jason Bonham, son of original Zep drummer John Bonham, and apparently Page, Plant and Jones didn’t know this would happen. The band was followed by a string section, then a choir, and finally, at the end, an even bigger choir. You couldn’t help but notice not only that the stage seemed to be filled with a hundred musicians, but also that it took that many to recreate the sound of four guys.
I admit, the first time I watched this, I wasn’t much impressed. The second time, knowing that Bonham was a surprise, I picked up on the emotional impact of the performance, and how touched the band members seemed to be. This time, it was the arrangement, with the ever-increasing number of people on stage, that convinced me this was a special moment indeed.
Ann Wilson wasn’t the only person on that stage who had big shoes to fill. Jimmy Page’s solo in “Stairway” is one of the most famous guitar solos ever. Whoever played it would have to come close enough to the original to be respectful, but would also have to show just enough difference to allow for a personal touch. The guitarist here succeeds; he doesn’t overdo it, he doesn’t “show Jimmy up” (not that he could have), he honors the original much as the overall performance honored the band.
That guitar player was born Michael Barakan. As a session musician (who often accompanies artists on tour), he has played with everyone from Joe Cocker to Johnny Hallyday, from Ian Hunter to Crosby, Stills and Nash. And, oh yeah … he was the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s “Other Band”, which toured in 1992 and 1993 during the time between Springsteen’s dismissal of the E Street Band and their reunion later in the 90s. Shane Fontayne (for that was his stage name) was a fine complement to the band’s sound, if you could just close your eyes. But his long curly hair and old-school guitar-hero moves made him seem ludicrous, even compared to the onstage antics of a Steven Van Zandt. Fontayne is not remembered kindly by many Bruce fans, and while I think that sentiment is unfair, I twice saw that band live, and thought Fontayne was annoying.
So it adds a little something to see Fontayne, with the shorter hair you’d expect from a rocker in his late-50s in 2012, moving like a toned-down version of his Other Band persona, and doing right by Jimmy Page. It’s a nice moment.
Here is Heart’s performance:
And here is Fontayne with Bruce and the Other Band: