Drummer Jason Bonham Enjoys Playing Led Zep Faves for the Fans

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click to enlarge Drummer Jason Bonham Enjoys Playing Led Zep Faves for the Fans
Frank Melfi
Drummer Jason Bonham can keep time with the best of them when he’s behind the kit. But if you’ve got a scheduled appointment with Bonham, you might want to bring a magazine to catch up on some reading while you’re waiting for him to show up. Chances are good that you’ll be hanging out for a bit before he gets there, even if you’re Jimmy Page.

The year was 1987 and Bonham had been drafted to play drums on Page’s Outrider album. “The experience was an amazing one and I almost kind of blew it, because I was very young at the time and still kind of green around the edges,” he recalls in a phone interview. “I would push the boundaries because Jimmy was so close, family-wise. So before we would start each day, I would go out from Jimmy’s studio at the time and run down to the local pub and have a few pints before we’d start. One day, I was particularly late and I got into the studio and then went in to make myself a sandwich and he kind of lost his temper. It freaked me out, because I’d never seen that side of him before.”

It was a moment that shook his foundation in those younger days and he says that he was really sad. “I was scolded by my uncle, so it suddenly felt very real that this is not just…..this is real and you’ve got to work now. You know, you’re expected to be at places at the right time.” Bonham might have snapped back to reality at that time, but it didn’t stick, even for the O2 rehearsals with Led Zeppelin when the guys played a reunion show.

“No matter where I was staying, whether it was three miles away or a hundred miles away, in the week, I would generally be late three or four times by 20 or 30 minutes and those guys, I couldn’t believe that they were always there on time or even early,” he admits. “I’d walk in and they’d be sitting there reading a newspaper waiting for me to get there. When I look back now, I see a very, very fond memory of the three of them, I’d walk in and they’d go, ‘Oh, okay, well, he has arrived. His Lordship is here.’”

Getting to play drums at the O2 show in 2007 with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin — Robert Plant, Page and John Paul Jones — was an emotional experience for Bonham, filling the role that his father, the legendary John Bonham, had dominated for so many years prior to his death in 1980.

He knew that thousands (and then thousands more when the show was released on video) of people would be watching and he wanted to make sure that his performance would do justice to the memory of his dad. He wanted people to see a great Led Zeppelin show.

“I wanted to rehearse,” he says with a laugh. “We rehearsed and we rehearsed and we rehearsed. It was a great experience, not only just doing the show, but to get to know them, you know, now I’m much older than I was [when I was] this little kid running around the studio. To talk to them and occasionally just to share music, like, I’d give Jimmy ride a home and I’d play music in the car and see what he thought of different bits of music that I was listening to and either turn him onto something or he’d turn me onto something. It was the same with Robert, we’d go out locally when I was back home. So yeah, to go out to an Indian restaurant guys and we sat there and nobody really knew what we were talking about and at the time, we were talking about doing the Zeppelin reunion show at the O2. It was surreal, to say the least. I sat there and I’m going, ‘Oh my God, this is really going to happen.’ And from the moment we started, it was a special show. Once we got the first three songs and kicked into ‘In My Time Of Dying,’ I felt it was very, very special. It kind of got better and better. I’m very blessed.”

He works diligently to honor the memory of his father’s contributions to the Led Zeppelin canon with his own group, Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. The band returns to the area for its second show of the year, where they’ll serve up an encore shot of Led Zep favorites at the Hard Rock Live. “It was a fun Zeppelin town [back in the day],” Bonham says, quickly adding, “of course, I get to say, ‘Hello, Cleveland!’”

The project isn't something that he approaches lightly and in fact, he takes it very seriously.

“We have the same connection when it comes to Led Zeppelin music,” he says, regarding his bandmates. “You know, each one of them is as passionate about it [as I am]. I always said that the rule to be in the band, you’ve got to love it as much as me if not more. And because I’m not big into rehearsing, I like the fact that if they know the catalog like I know the catalog, then it’s great, because we’ll go in for one day, pick the songs, play them once or twice and then be ready to tour. So I like to keep it as fresh as possible. It really is a celebration of the music and why I do this is for the love. It is the time where you can just go out and we go out and play to our best ability and do some of the greatest songs ever and you know, sometimes, the reasons why we go out and do it in different stages and with a different setlist is because we just love playing. You know, there’s all of those different songs. So definitely be expecting to hear [a lot of music]. Every album will be represented on these shows. I’m not going to steer clear of [anything], you know, I want to make sure that least Coda is represented, In Through The Out Door, ‘Fool In The Rain’ and things like that, tracks like ‘Wearing and Tearing’ from Coda, Presence, things like ‘Hots On for Nowhere,’ to me, that is the main thing.”

The remaining Zeppelin band members haven’t seen Bonham’s band yet, but he has an idea that they’ve taken a few peeks — and he’s done his part to try to get them to come out and be part of the experience.

“I’m sure they’ve seen a clip or so,” he says. “I’d love to have them come out to a show. It’s something that I do, and I’m trying to keep doing it on a regular basis. Like at the Greek in L.A. around dad’s birthday, we did it on dad’s birthday this year and it was amazing and Robert was playing two days later at the Greek. I rang him to see if he would come down, but he had a gig at Santa Barbara on that day. But that would be something for me, just to get one of them to come out and get up and have a play.”

A lifelong scholar of his dad’s work, Bonham doesn’t hesitate when it comes to pointing out some of the key moments from the recordings of the group. “For years, The Song Remains the Same live version was the standard that I set everything to,” he says. “It kind of is the most familiar to everybody, to the average guy or woman, the most significant live versions of the Zeppelin stuff [come] from The Song Remains the Same. With that said, then they released How The West Was Won and I’ve got to say, sonically as well as sound-wise, the drum solo in ‘72, I think even beat the solo in ’73 and there’s a great part and if you haven’t heard it for a while, put it back on and check it out — it came out randomly in my car the other day when it was on shuffle mode and I had to pull the car over, because it was so good. It felt like I hadn’t ever heard it. You can almost hear my dad’s brain start ticking in the middle of the solo, he goes into a snare pattern where it’s basically a holding pattern where he’s thinking of what to do next and it’s a great moment when you can actually hear that, the cobwebs of the brain going, ‘Okay, what should I do now, what should I do now? Oh yeah, okay,’ and then he goes into another section.”

Bonham has logged years of his own road work at this point, including stints with Foreigner and more recently, Sammy Hagar and the Circle, the all-star project that features Bonham on drums, with Hagar and his former Van Halen band mate Michael Anthony, plus guitarist Vic Johnson. They play a mix of Hagar’s solo hits, plus tracks from Montrose, Van Halen and of course, Led Zeppelin. No matter with whom he’s playing, he carries the distinctive sound and style of his dad’s playing forward to new generations of music fans and as he shares, there are other areas where his father continues to make an impact.

“Something that I still take with me every day when I play is his ability — and I have to remind myself constantly — his ability to just take a breath before you start playing and his ability to be in the pocket and groove from the moment he starts live in the live concert,” he says. “Because I always feel for the first three songs, I always find that I’m a bit tight, so you always utilize the first three songs to get into where you want to be and the groove you want to be in. But Dad seemed to be able to just go out there and from the moment he started, he was in the pocket. That’s the biggest thing. It’s not about chops for me and it’s not about all of that. It’s that groove and playing where it doesn’t sound tight, you know, you’re not on top of things.”

He uses playing with Hagar as an example.

“Working with Sammy, for a while, I kept thinking, ‘What’s he doing? Why is he coming up and standing next to me and putting his hands in his pockets?’ I didn’t know what he was doing — it was like he was bored. I was like, ‘Sammy, what are you doing? It’s kind of distracting me!’ He goes, ‘That’s the moment when you get the pocket and you’re really in the pocket.’ And I’m like, ‘Got it!’ So when he comes and stands next to you and puts his hands in his pocket, I go, ‘What have I done?’ You know, ‘Are you pissed or something?’ He goes, ‘No, that means you’re really in the pocket right now.’”

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, 8 p.m. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $32.50-$62.50, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.
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