There's nothing 'cute' or 'kitsch' about Lez Zeppelin


PITTSFIELD —Whatever you do, said Lez Zeppelin founder and guitarist, Steph Payne, "Do not consider this a tribute band."

In a telephone interview last week, Payne said what she and her bandmates; vocalist Marlain Angelides, drummer Leesa Harrington-Squyres and bassist Joan Chew are doing when they record and play the songs of rock legends Led Zeppelin is more akin to an orchestra or jazz ensemble performing classic standards.

When the band takes the stage Saturday night at the Colonial Theater, it'll be a homecoming of sorts for Payne, whose family owned a home in Great Barrington for about 20 years, where she would spend time during vacations and breaks from school and often found creative inspiration within those times.

"I've always felt it was an absolutely magical place," she said. "It just feels like there's something old in the ground, you know?"

Payne said she once took the opportunity to spend about four days alone in that house, with little more than her guitar and worked non-stop learning the intricacies of Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing.

"And, I'll never forget that because it was just me and The Berkshires and Jimi Hendrix," she said.

That exercise helped Payne 'get' what Hendrix was doing and about guitar playing in general.

Before founding Lez Zeppelin in 2004, Payne said she found herself between projects and decided to delve into the work of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page the way she had with Hendrix years before.

"I can't even quantify how (my musicianship) changed except to say that it completely changed," Payne said.

Once she began doing that, it occurred to her, "Why not get a band together and really try to play the hell out of this stuff?"

"I didn't even know what a tribute band was at that point," she said, but thought it would be fun to have an all-female band playing the material, but was also well aware of the added pressure that comes with taking on the task of performing some of the most iconic rock music of all time.

The band had to come out of the gate being excellent and couldn't afford to be sloppy or mediocre.

"Not only because (the music) was sacred ground, but because we were women," she said.

If they put on a sub-par performance, she said, there was the added pressure of feeding into the notion that women couldn't rock as hard as the boys.

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"Which has been the assumption of most of the audience when they first see us."

Payne said she quickly realized deciding to take on the mantle of one of the most iconic and beloved bands of all time was a lot to bite off.

"What kind of balls do we think we have to do this?" she said. "Everyone knows every little bit and piece (of Page's guitar work) I must be out of my mind."

Breaking down Led Zeppelin's music changed and improved not only Payne's guitar playing and musicianship, but that of every woman who has been part of the band over the years.

Payne said after 14 years of studying and deconstructing Led Zeppelin's music, she is still hearing subtleties she hadn't first noticed.

"When you deconstruct it you start to see all those beautiful colors that make up the light and shade of what they were doing," she said.

Another consideration was whether to re-tailor the songs to align them with being performed from a female perspective, including whether to change gender-specific pronouns in the lyrics,. But that idea was quickly dismissed, Payne said.

"Absolutely not," she said. "You don't change the song and if you're going to call yourself Lez Zeppelin, you don't have to change the pronouns."

In fact, Payne said, taking on the mantle of male performers like Page and lead singer Robert Plant in particular, who incorporated not-so-subtle sexual intent into their performances and enacting that to an extent is incredibly empowering.

"Empowered female sexual thrust," Payne calls it.

"It's something undefined," she said. "When women take it on it makes more sense."

Ninety percent of the audience who haven't seen them before, Payne said, comes in thinking the idea of the band is `cute' or 'kitsch', with preconceived or dismissive notions of what they're about to see.

Notions including `it's a bunch of girls,' oh it's a great name,' `maybe they're gay,' `maybe they'll kiss each other,' Payne said.

"I don't know, but they don't think it's going to be like Led Zeppelin," Payne said. "And then when we start to play like Led Zeppelin, they can't believe it."


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