I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan. If you feel the same, Somerset Abbey in Madison is the place to be this coming Saturday night. That venerable venue will host the area debut of the all-female quartet known as Lez Zeppelin which is made up of Steph Paynes (guitar), Marlain Angelides (vocals), Leesa Harrington-Squyers (drums), and Joan Chew (bass/keys). These four talented young women have chops and seem to be channeling Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones perfectly. For proof of that I send you to Spotify and YouTube to hear and see for yourself. I had to find out more, so guitarist Steph Paynes was kind enough to give 40 minutes of her time to chat with me Aug. 19 from her New York City home.
Q: Having listened to a lot of your work on Spotify and YouTube, I have to say that your guitar work is spot-on and mind-blowing.
Paynes: Thank you. Are you sure you weren’t listening to Jimmy and not me?
Q: No, it was Lez Zeppelin, unless Mr. Page was making an appearance with you guys?
Paynes: No, unfortunately not one of these days. That’s next on the bucket list. Thank you.
Q: I know that you’ve been up to Maine a couple of times in the past, if I remember correctly.
Paynes: Yes, we love Maine — love it. I was just there on a little vacation. We were supposed to play gigs, but those got postponed, so I went up there anyway (laughter). It was great. So yes, we have played in Portland, mostly in Portland.
Q: Have you ever played at the Somerset Abbey?
Paynes: No, but it sounds lovely, and we can’t wait. I mean, we had a show at the Port City Music Hall that was supposed to be that weekend or something, but you know they’re gone now, right?
Q: Yeah, I heard that they were closing for good because of the pandemic, I believe. I was a little surprise and very disappointed.
Paynes: Yeah, me too, but we moved our show to the State Theatre, so we’ll actually be (there) next year. And we’re doing all of “Physical Graffiti.”
Q: Oh, my gosh!
Paynes: Which is one of my dream things to do ever since I started the group. “Physical Graffiti” was like this holy-grail-kind-of quest. One day we’re going to do it because it’s so diverse and difficult and long. But not as long as you would think, it’s under an hour-and-a-half, the whole thing. But it’s fun to play and we have a whole multi-media show with it. It’s very hard to do and with four people; it’s near impossible, but we figured it out.
Q: Have you ever seen “Celebration Day”? I’m sure you probably have.
Paynes: I was at the show. I saw it in person, but, yeah, I’ve seen both: the show live and when “Celebration Day” premiered in Manhattan. In fact, that’s the first time I met Jimmy was at the after-party, that was a celebratory moment.
Q: I’m sure it was, but back to your “Physical Graffiti” announcement, it must have taken a long time to work that show up.
Paynes: Yes, in fact. I’d say it’s taken the entire history of the band to sort of do it. We’re not like quote/unquote most tribute bands. I mean, the whole idea of what we do is to kind of take what Led Zeppelin did live and … really dig into the songs as a live band as opposed trying to replicate the recording, which is a whole different thing. As you know there’s bass and keys and John Paul Jones played both on-stage, but in the studio he could play each separately. On stage, our bass player Joan Chew plays the bass and the keys, and when she’s playing the keys she’ll play bass pedals like JPJ did. That’s how he solved it; that’s how we solve it.
Q: Are there any tracks on “Physical Graffiti” that are more difficult to recreate?
Paynes: The song “In The Light,” for example, is just near impossible to play with four people. I mean there are drones, and there’s all of this stuff going on. So Joan is playing two keyboards and bass pedals; I’m even stepping on things to create keyboard sounds as the guitar player. It takes a while and some ingenuity to do it. I mean there are all kinds of styles present on that album: there’s rockabilly, there’s Celtic folk fingerpicking style, altered tuning, there’s psychedelia, there’s straight-ahead hard rock, there’s acoustic guitar and mandolin — there’s everything on one record. I think it probably encapsulates what Led Zeppelin did as a group all in one place stylistically. That’s really why it’s so great and why it’s so difficult. … We didn’t dare do it until recently.
Q: Now what kind of performance can folks expect up at the Somerset Abbey?
Paynes: Well, we’re not going to be doing the whole record there; it’s not the right environment for it. I think what we’ll do it just a whole diverse and mixed set list probably hit-heavy — stuff that people are more familiar with and probably a few deeper tracks tossed in for fun. We like doing that, and it usually surprises people. Since I’ve never played there, so I don’t know what kind of audience they have. We usually try to tailor sets if we get a sense of what the audience is going to be, because there’s so much to choose from. When you go to a venue that’s heard you — that you’ve been to 20 times and you know half the people in the crowd because they come back — then you can really throw then curve balls, because they’ve heard you so much already.
Q: For the last five-and-a-half months I’ve been chronicling how COVID-19 has impacted musicians around the country and even some that have come or am coming to Maine. I would guess that, like everybody else, you’ve been negatively impacted show-wise.
Paynes: None — we’ve done none. Actually we’re doing our first show next weekend, weirdly, but we did our last show March 12 in Annapolis, Maryland. They closed the doors right after us, and we were supposed to have another gig the next day but ended up just driving home. Everything closed behind us, and we haven’t played since then. The girls got very dispirited, to say the least.
Q: Well, that was your livelihood, for gosh sakes.
Paynes: Yeah, that’s right. For me, it’s my only job. I run the band; for me, this is it. Some of the other girls have other avenues — they teach or they do other things. But for me this is it.
Q: Seeing this is a venue debut for Lez Zeppelin, is there anything you’d like to pass along to the folks reading this article?
Paynes: Well, all I can say is, “If you’re expecting a straight-ahead, what you think might be a tribute band, that’s not what you’re going to get. You’re going to get something way more than that.” This is a real band. It’s not a band impersonating Led Zeppelin; it’s not a band that just goes through the motions playing note for note, or gesturing like they do. We really come at the music and make it our own. It’s not like we change everything, but when we play the music, it’s as if we own it. We kind of go wild with it; there’s intense power and passion to our shows. That’s kind of what we’re known for, and I think it’s far preferred and a different category than quote/unquote “tribute.” You’re going to hear Led Zeppelin, but you’re going to hear it in a very authentic way, and not in a way that you might expect.
Lucky Clark has spent over 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.