Gig review: HEART, JASON BONHAM’S LED ZEPPELIN EXPERIENCE – Toronto, Canada, 23 July 2013

Molston Canadian Amphitheatre

Heart,Toronto, Canada, 23 July 2013

While Heart came to the attention of the majority of UK fans for their big power ballads and soft focus videos in the eighties, the band prefer to see themselves in their earlier guise in which, with their mix of blistering hard rock topped off by searing powerful vocals and more delicate folk influences, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson and their cohorts were likened to Led Zeppelin. To this day nearly every show sees them pay homage to their idols with at least one cover.

However this tour, cunningly billed ‘Heartbreaker’ was a unique opportunity to celebrate both the Zeppelin legend and their own legacy as perhaps the first band to prove that women could rock on their own terms with equal intensity to men.

As a long time fan, it was a particular pleasure for me to see them in a Canada that regards them as homeland heroes, even though the band  originated with American draft dodgers and girlfriends who crossed the border from Seattle to Vancouver.  The 16,000 capacity Amphitheatre seemed to be virtually full to capacity.

Jason Bonham,Toronto, Canada, 23 July 2013

The tour paired them with Jason Bonham, a respected drummer in his own right with several bands but most famous for being the son of Zeppelin drummer John, and the drummer on their occasional reunions such as 2007’s show at the 02.

While some children of famous parents spend their lives trying to escape their shadow, he is embracing it. The show began with him narrating a film of old family footage and, taking the mike between songs, he explained this was his way of telling his late father how much he meant to him.

He has assembled a band that carried off the Zeppelin sound with aplomb, although I was initially puzzled as the lead singer came on stage with the shaven head, shades and beard look of Jason himself.  They began with a couple of more accessible numbers in ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Black Dog’ but proved they had more to offer than the average tribute on more epic numbers like ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and my own favourite ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’.

After ‘Houses of the Holy’ warmed the crowd up somewhat, he got us to conjure up his Dad’s spirit with a chant of ‘Bonzo’, at which a tape of perhaps the most famous drum pattern in rock started up in support of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and it was a quite brilliant version, not only with the double drums, but the harmonica and slide guitar playing whipping up a storm. After closing inevitably with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ Jason teasingly announced he and some of the band might be back later.

There was a surprise as Heart opened with Nancy playing the opening power chords to ‘Barracuda’, which I expected  to come much later in the set, Ann spitting out the venomous lyrics and Nancy and Craig Bartok combining to give a satisfyingly thick sound.

The light show helped bring out in the show an intimacy you would not expect from a place this size, while their backing band, most of whom have been around a few years ago are solid enough but the spotlight is more than ever on the sisters.

Heart,Toronto, Canada, 23 July 2013

Ann, sporting a tight black perm, is a hard-to-credit 62 now, but can still belt out the songs with passion and intensity and barely seems to have had to alter her voice at all. ‘What About Love’ was wondrous to hear, but the emphasis for the night was very much on the back catalogue, including ‘Heartless’, ‘Even it Up’ and ‘Magic Man’, with a great moment as Craig’s solo led into some very seventies sounding synthesiser wizardry from Debbie Shair.

‘Mistral Wind’, with its acoustic beginnings, slow burn and heavy riffing was a prime example of the Zeppelin comparisons while the aggressive ‘Kick it Out’, and ‘Dog and Butterfly’ with some lovely harmonising, showed the two sides that Heart combine to such devastating effect.

The ageless Nancy got to sing lead on a couple of songs, notably a beautiful as ever ‘These Dreams’, but was eclipsed when Ann, with only a touch of acoustic guitar and keyboard for backing, turned ‘Alone’ into a remarkable, near acapella tour de force, putting her heart and soul into the performance. At the end of the song, it was quite emotional to feel the warmth of a lengthy spontaneous from an audience that knew they had just witnessed something very special indeed.

I did wonder whether, unlike the show I saw last year, this would be exclusively an oldies set, but late on they slipped ‘Dear Old America’ from last year’s Fanatic album which had a pleasingly progressive feel to it, before Nancy began strumming the silver wheels intro that could only lead to the classic ‘Crazy On You’, belatedly bringing a rather sedate, if appreciative crowd, to their feet.

I knew the encores would be the tribute to Zeppelin and the thought occurred as Ann and Nancy, the latter playing mandolin, duetted and harmonised on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, that this was the single Zep song that most influenced their sound.

They were then joined by Jason Bonham and his guitarist for two of the more adventurous numbers, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ and  ‘Rain Song’ before Ann belted out a fiery ‘Immigrant Song’ with gusto.

Jason Bonham,Toronto, Canada, 23 July 2013

But the best was still yet to come, as they carried off an almost pitch perfect version of ‘Kashmir’, one of the songs few dare to attempt and even fewer can emulate. Only one thing could top that, and I felt a spine tingle of disbelief as Nancy played the opening chords to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Once again, it was sensitively carried off, as close to the original as you could get, and it was wonderful to hear a voice of Ann’s quality pass the ultimate test, backed by a choir who I must admit I barely noticed until they were introduced at the end.

All those present left in a sense of awe that they had witnessed a very special gig by Heart’s standards. It was a night to celebrate the famous legacy and influence of one great band, but also to be reminded that the Wilson sisters were also pioneers whose talent endures to this day.

Review and Photos by Andy Nathan


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