Most musicians would consider recording demos with Robert Plant to be a rock fantasy. For Jason Bonham, son of Plant’s Led Zeppelin bandmate, John “Bonzo” Bonham, it wasn’t all that. It was more like your uncle calling you around to jam in the garage, he said.
“You don’t think of it like, oh my god, that’s Robert Plant,” the younger Bonham said. “You think of it as, this is another thing I’m gonna do for nothing. I’m not gonna get paid.”
He was 15 and 16, cutting demos in the United Kingdom for Plant’s “Pictures at Eleven” and “The Principle of Moments.” He only got paid for the latter, 25 pounds per day, which would have been about $35 in the states. Jason Bonham would go on to play his father’s drum parts during Zeppelin reunions in 1988 and 2007. Three years after the second reunion show, he formed a tribute act that would become known as Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening. He brings that show to Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center on Tuesday.
The idea of such a long-lasting tribute to his father’s band wasn’t in Bonham’s mind in 2010, when he started it. Thirty years had passed since his father, rock drumming legend John “Bonzo” Bonham, died. His son simply wanted to pay homage to the man who had passed down his drumming skills.
“It was never meant to go past a couple of years, if that, originally,” he said in a phone call from the road last week. “It took a life of its own ... How we travel, how we tour, is very nice, especially when it’s the fun project.”
The “serious” project is his gig with Sammy Hagar & The Circle, with whom he recently did 30 dates, and in which his boss is “very understanding” of his hectic tour schedule. These days, it’s a schedule that includes multiple dates through mid-October as the opening act for rock/blues guitarist and singer Peter Frampton’s farewell tour.
The show he’ll put on at Harvester is about 150 minutes and includes him talking from the stage, relaying his experiences and history as part of Led Zeppelin lore. That’s what he prefers for Led Zeppelin Evening, as opposed to the 45-to-50-minute, rock-’em-down-and-get-off-the-stage pace of opening. He said he was adamant that it wouldn’t work when his then-manager suggested he do it two years ago with the Foreigner and Cheap Trick tour that was hitting amphitheaters that summer.
“But I was proved wrong every night” of that tour, he said. It remains so in front of Frampton. “I never imagined it being this way, and it going down so well. Once again last night, Boston was phenomenal, another prove me wrong, we can go on at daylight thing.”
Frampton recently announced that he has a rare degenerative muscle disease that will rob him of his ability to play. Bonham said that you wouldn’t know from seeing and hearing him perform.
“Maybe this is it — he doesn’t ever want to be playing at a disadvantage, so ... he wants to stop so people remember him as this great guitar player,” Bonham said. “And he is a phenomenal player.”
“Bonzo” was a phenomenal rock drummer who could swing, and he helped stamp Led Zeppelin’s grooves as some of rock’s all-time greatest. That’s the way he taught his son to play: Groove first.
Jason Bonham was playing at age 5, with his father selecting a record on his jukebox and having little Jason hit it. His pop put on a lot of Rolling Stones, and Free, and Bad Company, he remembered.
“That was his way of teaching,” Jason Bonham said. “If I got it wrong, he would show me, then I would do it again.
“We never went into chops or any fills. It was just play to the song. He said, I want you to be able to play before you do all the other stuff. It’s not worth doing all the other stuff if you don’t know how to play.”
After Bonzo’s death, Jason started getting into the English prog-rock band Genesis, and Phil Collins became a hero. He even bought a replica Phil Collins set of Gretsch drums, with the bottom heads off, concert-style. It came in handy when Plant called him around to cut those demos. Collins wound up playing drums on most of the first Plant solo disc, and all of the second one. They talked about it when they finally met, when Jason Bonham was 17.
“Phil knew my playing before most people, before I even recorded anything for the public,” Bonham said. “He’d heard the demos ... Phil could tell that I was into Phil. He goes, I recognize a couple of the fills that you did.”
Collins had launched his own wildly successful solo career by that point. After many years of retirement, he has returned to performing, but back and foot issues have kept him off the drum set. Collins’ son, 17-year-old Nicholas Collins, is his drummer. Sounds familiar, right?
“I went to see him recently, and it’s great to see him back out on the road, and his son is playing amazingly,” Bonham said. “The best thing is, Nic’s biggest influence is my dad, not his. I said, you gotta check out your old man, though, cause he’s good. He said, yeah, but your dad is my favorite. I said, Nic, your dad’s really good.”