Led Zeppelin Masters, Portsmouth Guildhall REVIEW: ‘When was the last time classic rock ever sounded THIS good?’

Way, way back, on June 26, 1969, Led Zeppelin – the greatest hard rock band of all time (no ‘arguably’ needed) – made their Guildhall debut.
Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Masters were at Portsmouth Guildhall on April 10, 2019. Picture by Melanick PhotographyStairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Masters were at Portsmouth Guildhall on April 10, 2019. Picture by Melanick Photography
Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin Masters were at Portsmouth Guildhall on April 10, 2019. Picture by Melanick Photography

Sadly, for local fans, only one other appearance followed – in 1970.

I have no idea if anyone who watched either of those concerts was back at the same venue last night, 49 years on, to see the music of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham celebrated in extraordinary fashion, complete with the 35-piece Black Dog Orchestra.

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If they were, it must have been one hell of a nostalgic experience.

To steal a lyric from the band’s most famous song, it makes you wonder … well, it made me wonder anyway – when was the last time classic rock ever sounded THIS good in Portsmouth?

The Led Zep Boys band – vocalist Vince Contarino, guitarist Tzan Niko, bassist Warwick Cheatle (celebrating his birthday in Pompey, lucky lad!) and drummer Bradley Polain - have been entertaining Australian audiences for 33 years now (21 years longer, lest we forget, than the actual Led Zep did).

They are currently on only their second ever UK tour, the first was two years ago, and let’s hope they return. I’d happily drive to Southend tomorrow night to watch it all over again if I wasn’t working.

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Yes, the Zep Boys are a ‘tribute act’ but no way are they a second or third-rate imitation of a rock behemoth. To call them such would be, quite frankly, an insult. Tickets cost over £40, which is a lot of cash for some, but I guarantee from the crowd’s reactions no-one would have considered themselves short-changed.

Powerhouse singer Contarino looks every inch the rock star and possesses the vocal range to do Plant’s trademark howls justice. It is staggering that at the end of the show his voice sounds even stronger and better than two hours earlier.

Niko’s moments in the spotlight were outstanding, while Polain pummelled his kit to the point of near collapse during a remarkable near 10-minute solo in Moby Dick that brought a standing ovation from some. I’m the same age as Led Zep’s first album and I’ve never seen a better drum solo. Some are dull – ok, most are dull – but you couldn’t take your eyes off Polian.

Formed in 1986, it wasn’t until 2004 that the Zep Boys introduced The Black Dog Orchestra to give the songs extra depth.

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The musicians are sometimes swamped by the power of the main four-piece, but regularly add their own beauty and extra dimension to the likes of Rain Song, No Quarter, Ramble On, The Song Remains the Same, Dazed and Confused and the iconic Stairway to Heaven.

I always like to list concert highlights, but here there was a veritable feast to choose from. It was wonderful, truly it was, to hear the second half of the show kick off with a stunning, majestic Kashmir, and at the moment it was hard to see how Contarino and co could top that.

They had a good go, though – Going to California another personal highlight, there was so much more to Zep’s repertoire than power riffs, incendiary drumming and howls – before encoring with Immigrant Song and a riotous Whole Lotta Love.

It does make you wonder, doesn’t it? Half a century has elapsed since we first heard Led Zep, a band who were to influence so many. All these years on, thanks to four huge fans and their determination to keep the legacy alive, their music thankfully lives on – for those that remember the late ’60s and ’70s halcyon days of heavy rock, and to hopefully allow those who weren’t there to see what all the fuss was about in heady times before music was diverted down the path which led to sanitisation and streaming.

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Half a century on, the songs don’t remain the same, not really. They still sound like the originals, of course they do, but the Zep Boys and the Black Dog Orchestra have added a fresh touch, to coax new life into old recordings.

I never saw the original band, but if last night’s show was a portal into peak era Led Zep I know I missed a wonderful experience. A huge thanks, therefore, to the band and orchestra for taking me back to a time I can’t remember, but which so many people at the Guildhall last night will never forget …