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Interview: Vince Contarino Led Zeppelin Masters

Led Zeppelin Masters are far more than a tribute band or cover band. They are a tip of the hat to one of the greatest bands of all time, but crafted with talent, love and respect for the songs that have stood the test of time. Fronted by Zep Boys front man Vince Contarino and backed by the almighty 30-piece Black Dog Orchestra, Led Zeppelin Masters are revered world-wide. They are headed back to the famous Sydney Opera House and we caught up with Vince to talk about the shows and respecting the legacy that is Led Zeppelin

H2Z: Hey Vince! How ya doin man!

VC: Andrew, long time, good to chat man

H2Z: So, you are headed back to the Opera House with Led Zeppelin masters, with the Black Dog Orchestra, which is really Zeppelin on steroids. How much of an undertaking is that to put together?

VC: A lot of the work has been done now. The first orchestral show was done back in 2005, so we have done a hell of a lot of work from the early days orchestrating the songs. To demystify how we put it together, if you listen to an album, there are so many tracks, which layer an album. Zeppelin are essentially a 3 piece, of course with Robert (Plant) out front singing. So, take tracks like “Kashmir”, “Stairway To Heaven”, or “The Rain Song”, there are so many different overdubs, layers, and voicings, with so many hooks left, right and centre. But of course, when they play it live, they have to strip it right back to be able to play it. When you orchestrate it, you can use all those lines, and then add even more, through harmonizing with those lines, because with an orchestra, because you have more musicians to be able to do it. Just with different instruments, to voice those. So, from that point of view, that simplistic point of view, it’s not that daunting.

Then there is the artistic process. It’s like cooking. You can put all the ingredients in there, but there is always a certain method, and you use the ingredients with respect, because when you put that plate on the table, you want it to taste magnificent. It’s one thing to just got for it, hell for leather, but it’s another thing to be tasteful, and the artistry needs to come out. That has been the big thing we have worked on and improved over the years, By the time we get to letting the orchestra do their arrangements, we have our own arranger Nick Buc who has done these as well as Jamie Messenger has done a few for us. We have taken the view of how important it is to take these arrangements, and make them spark, and make them flow, so over the years we have done the work, so now when we get together with an orchestra, the conductor already knows it so well. Couple that with our bass player and musical director Warwick Cheatle, who has been doing this for so many years, means we can go from A to Z really quickly. We are so comfortable with it now, we work together so well, and while it’s still daunting to put it across without all the subtleties being lost. Like the delicate sounds of violins or flutes, they can be lost backed against the power of an electric band and all the amplification.

H2Z: Is there a song on the bucket list that you haven’t had a chance to do though?

VC: No, not really, because I have already picked all the ones I wanted to do (laughs). But then you have to also be mindful of not being self-indulgent. We are putting it out to a crowd out there so it’s so important to me to be respectful of our audience. I have managed to slip in ones like “Dazed And Confused”, while we aren’t doing it this tour, I have slipped in “Achilles Last Stand”. Doing that is ok though, because in the audience, are your Led Zeppelin fanatics, and playing songs like that might actually piss them off. So, I play it first (laughs), because I don’t mind pissing people off at the very beginning, because as the show develops, you are playing all these beautiful songs that they know and love, but because they got pissed off you win them over, so it works for the die hard and the casual fans. These things are all theatrical techniques you use with your audience, which is great as that is what theatre is all about.

H2Z: I would love to hear you do “Out On The Tiles
VC: We have done that! We have done it with the orchestra. And that’s why we do stuff like “No Quarter”. The songs that aren’t the FM hits, but they are important in the history of the band. And you are giving the fans a chance to hear songs that they normally would hear. And “The Song Remains The Same” when that orchestra comes in, it’s unreal, I’m excited here just talking about it (laughs).

H2Z: You have also taken the show over to the UK. Do you notice much of a difference between the crowds there and the ones here at home?

VC: The UK crowds are used to far more variety live, and that’s because they get a lot more choice than we do here, so they really like when bands and artists play those rare tracks. They love variety over there. They are so emotional. They will cry openly, they will yell and scream openly. They are not as conservative as we are here.

H2Z: So how many people are in the Black Dog Orchestra?

VC: It usually varies between 32 and 35 in the orchestra these days. The charts now are written for that number of players, plus the 4 of us out front, and it works well. We have had 72-piece orchestras with other artists and it was just overkill. This is just right, its beautiful. And with Zeppelin having those lush arrangements on the record, it really gives the orchestra their own space to really shine.

You add our arranger Nicholas Buc with Tzan Niko on guitar, Warwick Cheatle on Bass and Bradley Polain on drums, these guys are far more musical than I could ever be, and they break down those parts into all the little bits and pieces. I’m more of a dynamics guy, adding things like “Make that sparse there and lush over there”. We actually listen to a mixture of Zeppelin bootlegs and the studio stuff and take parts from everywhere to get to where we have it. It’s almost like Archaeology, we found the bones, we dug them up, we cleaned them and then we rebuilt them and put it out on display. Then we get to sit back as mates and go “Fuck! We did that! Get the fuck outta here” (laughs). Don’t get me wrong, we were given a pretty awesome script to read from.

HZ2: Do you think that sometimes artists have lots that in this day and age, the ability to really stand back and appreciate that script that was written for them by the bands that came before them?

VC: You might be right. Maybe. There are some artists that admit it, and they do their own thing, and they are the ones who inspire me personally. But then you have the artist that do the same old thing, and they just leave me cold as I’m not inspired by it. But I will never be disrespectful to them, because the people that go and see them are getting what they need from them, and as Led Zeppelin aren’t actively touring, I hope that when people come and see us, we give them something they need.

Led Zeppelin Masters play the Sydney Opera House Thursday January 3rd and Friday January 4th. Limited tickets remain for both shows. Get along and experience Led Zeppelin on steroids. Buy your tickets here

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