Stairway To Heaven: an orchestral take on Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin Masters are not, the press release for this show went to great lengths to point out, a tribute band. They are, to be fair, exactly that, but the show they put on with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra brought a dimension to the songs of Led Zeppelin that lifted the performance above a simple tribute act.

Led Zeppelin Masters

Led Zeppelin Masters

Led by Vince Contarino of The Zep Boys, a man who is capable of reaching for, and even, occasionally, reaching the vocal heights of Robert Plant, the show was a two-hour trot through the greatest hits of one of the most storied rock bands in history. A four-piece rock band in the classic Zeppelin format fronted the stage of Auckland’s Civic Theatre, the ideal setting for rock this overblown and pompous, while a couple of dozen musicians from the Auckland Philharmonia’s string and brass sections sat behind. The result was, at the very least, intriguing.

There’s not a whole lot an orchestra can add to a song like Rock ‘n’ Roll; it’s already such a monumentally colossal piece of music that there’s no room to squeeze an orchestra in. But Led Zeppelin were more than just an enormous rock band; the obvious reference here is Stairway To Heaven itself, a song of such delicate beauty that the Phil were a delightful accompaniment, their sweeping strings adding a lushness to the sound that managed to make an already wonderful song even more striking. But All My Love also benefited enormously from the orchestra’s contributions, the solo that was played on a keyboard on the original recording on In Through The Out Door now being performed to great effect on trumpet. The orchestra similarly enhanced Immigrant Song and Kashmir, already huge songs becoming almost unbearably magnificent. Contarino showed himself to be a quite superb singer on songs like Ramble On, which showcased his outstanding range to great effect, but All My Love was possibly a little more of a reach for him than would have been ideal; The Rain Song was an opportunity for him to stretch his voice a little, but the strings behind him were little more than a saccharin wash; and the drum solo of Moby Dick swung wildly between an actual rhythm workout and a simple speed trial. But for all the missteps, of which there really weren’t that many, there were moments like the encore of Whole Lotta Love, which featured a quick medley of half a dozen lesser classics like Misty Mountain Hop and Heartbreaker and which more than made up for the occasional weaknesses.

Stairway To Heaven, then, was a very impressive event. For two hours — it’s an orchestral show, so there was, of course, an intermission as well — the band and orchestra paid tribute to some of the most remarkable songs in the rock canon, and both did them justice and managed to find something new to do with them.

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