By the mid-1990s, rock ’n’ roll gigs in and around Los Angeles were getting harder to find.
For a blues-based, straight-ahead rock band like the one Matt Jernigan was fronting, the future was looking, if not bleak, certainly not rosy.
“We were working with a management company in L.A. trying to get a gig going,” Jernigan said. “They weren’t signing our kind of band anymore, and they suggested we might want to try being a tribute band.
“That had never occurred to us. Then they said Led Zeppelin. We kind of already had the Led Zeppelin sound, and after thinking about it for three or four months, we decided to try it.
“We went to work developing it, and here we are in our 18th year. And we still have all the original folks in the band.”
The musicians named their tribute band Zoso, which is the word used to represent guitarist Jimmy Page on the album “Led Zeppelin IV.” Zoso: The Ultimate Led Zeppelin Experience will perform Saturday night at the Cotillion.
Short of seeing Led Zeppelin in a reunion concert, Zoso is likely the nearest you will get to seeing and hearing what the fabled band was like during its prime. The Los Angeles Times said the group was “head and shoulders above all other Zeppelin tributes.”
Jernigan portrays lead singer Robert Plant, John McDaniel stands in for Page, Adam Sandling handles John Paul Jones’ duties on bass and keyboard, and Greg Thompson fills in for drummer John Bonham. They launched the band in 1995, the same year Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
“We try to put people in the whole experience of what it would be like to see Led Zeppelin in concert,” Jernigan said. “That’s what we were told we would have to do.
“Getting into the acting part of things was totally new to us. Of course, we were performers on stage, but to try to emulate a particular person was another thing — and something none of us had done before.
“And doing Robert Plant is really tough. But the main thing for us was to get the music down first. You can look like and act like the band members all you want, but if you don’t get the music down, it’s pointless.”
Delivering a masterful, note-for-note rendition of a complex arrangement like the song “Stairway to Heaven” takes serious musicianship. The richness of its songbook is why Led Zeppelin is considered one of the most innovative and influential bands in rock history.
“We all grew up listening to Led Zeppelin music,” Jernigan said of the band members. “But going down the road and singing along with one of their songs on the radio is totally different than trying to execute it, isolate things and hear things.
“Doing that is when you realize more and more what really great composers these guys were. Even on some of their simpler stuff, there’s still a masterful craft to it.
“They’re a very tough band to pull off musically. There was no band like it. Not only were they unique, they created great, complicated, well-thought-out compositions.”
Learning how to create a spot-on imitation of Plant’s soaring vocals and sweat-soaked onstage antics wasn’t something Jernigan mastered quickly. That Zoso is widely considered the premier tribute band of its kind is a testament to the effort the musicians have put into creating just the right alchemy necessary to transport audiences back in time.
When the band started to put the show together, members had immediate access to Led Zeppelin’s oeuvre of music via albums and sheet music. Studying the band members’ performance styles was more difficult.
“At the time we started this in 1995, we only had (the concert film) ’The Song Remains the Same’ with which to study the theatrics and the moves,” Jernigan said. “We had pictures and books, but there’s not a lot of film footage of them.
“There are other bands out there trying to do this, and some have six or seven guys. We stay within the form of re-creating what it would be like seeing the four musicians. I think that makes it far more authentic.
“What’s so impressive to me is that the four guys who make up Led Zeppelin created this wall of sound. It’s just incredible.”
Contributing: Lori O’Toole Buselt of The Eagle