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Conductor Brent Havens on Combining Led Zeppelin with World-Class Orchestras

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For more than 20 years, conductor / arranger Brent Havens has been leading Windborne Music’s Music of Led Zeppelin show – performing the songs of Led Zeppelin an estimated 90 nights a year while backed by the combined might of his own rock band and some of the finest orchestras in North America.

“This is a rock and roll show, with a full band and lead singer, and then an orchestra,” he cautions the less-musically adventurous members of the classical music-loving world. “We do occasionally get people coming in going, ‘Oh, what’s a band doing up there? I had no idea that there would be a singer or a band. I thought it would just be an orchestra doing Led Zeppelin.’”

That crack band includes Zebra singer Randy Jackson. “They had sent me a cassette [of his singing], and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy can wail!,'” Havens explains. “Then I find out that Zebra has covered a number of Zeppelin tunes… so he fits them perfectly.”

We spoke to Mr. Havens about how the Music of Led Zeppelin show started, how it deepened his appreciation for the work of Jimmy Page and company, and how he sees it as a way for orchestras across the country to bring in a brand-new audience:

Which came first for you – classical music or rock and roll?

Neither one. I’m not a classical musician, nor a classical conductor per se, and I wasn’t really into rock and roll when I was a kid. I was more into jazz and jazz fusion stuff – Maynard Ferguson, Bob James, those kinds of things, when I was young. But you couldn’t go to grocery store when I was a kid and not hear Led Zeppelin. I mean, “Stairway to Heaven” or “Whole Lotta Love,” those tunes were always playing on the radio. So it wasn’t as if I didn’t know any Led Zeppelin or hadn’t heard it. I thought it was cool, but it wasn’t my thing back in high school.

Jazz fusion is pretty heady stuff for a school kid to be into. Were your parents musicians?

No, they weren’t, not at all. Nobody in my family was a musician. I just happened to hear it. I was in the high school band, I heard somebody brought an album in, and it just blew me away. I was like, “What the heck kind of music is this? I love this!” So I did everything I could to buy all those albums and really learn everything I could about it. And obviously I had some penchant for music, because what I’d do is, I’d go home and transcribe everything that was on the album and [bring the results] into school.

So how did you become a part of the Music of Led Zeppelin show?

I got into film scoring – well, actually, earlier in my career I did jingle work. In the ‘70s you know, synthesizers weren’t there – it was all live musicians. So I happened to be in the right place at the right time and got a gig orchestrating for some guys who were doing some commercial work, and then I branched off on my own and did my own jingle work. Not really jingle work, I didn’t write any of the jingle-type tunes, I did more orchestration and things like that, and then as things progressed I moved into television scores and movie scores. So that’s how I got into the orchestra side of the business, and since I was conducting my own material in the studio, when this came along it just made sense for me to conduct these as well, since I wrote the charts and I knew the music inside and out.

Has this given you a greater appreciation of Led Zeppelin’s music?

Oh, absolutely! You know, when I sat down to transcribe some of this stuff, it was like, wow, this is impressive for guys in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were just coming up, and through the ‘70s when they were huge. I mean their use of rhythmic motifs were just pretty spectacular, and then Jimmy Page had alternate tunings on his guitar, and I’m thinking, “how did they come up with this stuff, this is pretty impressive stuff!” Nobody else was really doing this.

It’s one of the best examples in rock music, of incredible individual talents meshing into an even greater whole..

It really was magic. And they used the Mellotron for some of the stuff, and they used actual orchestration, like on “Kashmir” they’re using actual brass and string instruments. It was an impressive array of material that they were putting together, and certainly they gelled as a group like probably nobody else.

So when and how did the show start?

We premiered the Led Zeppelin show 21 years ago. 1995 was our very first show. We did it in a very small theater with an orchestra, it was only a thousand seats and it sold out in a day. So we realized, “Whoa, people may wanna come and see this kinda thing!” It took a number of years though, after that, for orchestras [around the country] to actually begin to catch on and say, “Hey this is something where we can bring a new audience in, something that’s different than our classical audience or even a pops audience. This is a rock and roll audience.” It took some time and some convincing, but now everybody’s doing it and it’s really amazing.

So for each of these shows, working with different orchestras along with your own band, how much advance preparation is required?

With the orchestra itself, you’re talking a world-class orchestra here, you’re not talking high school kids. I’ll have them for less than 90 minutes. The first time they see the music will probably be that morning or that afternoon, whenever the rehearsal is. And it’ll be perfect the first time they even look at it – they are that good. That night, you’ll realize, “Good lord, this is perfect! These guys are amazing.” It’s just astounding.

Are there any songs that translated to this format in a particularly surprising way?

I wouldn’t say I was surprised by any of them,  but I do have to say there are a couple of tunes that work incredibly well. I mean, obviously “Kashmir” – you know it’s gonna work, because it has it already. But tunes like, oh, “Since I’ve Been Loving You,’ that blues tune in six, that is just so rich. When you put an orchestra with that, it just brings out something completely different. All of my musicians are playing exactly what’s on the record. So everything that the audience knows is already there. And now you add a 50-60 piece orchestra to the top of that, and there’s this really lush pallet of colors. That’s one where I stood in front of the orchestra for the first time after I’d done the arrangement, and I was just blown away by how well it sounded with the orchestra.

What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin song?

You know, I don’t know, they’re all really great tunes. I certainly love the audience’s reaction when we crank up “Kashmir,” I love the groove and the meters in “The Ocean.” You know, the first 16 bars of that, every bar has a new meter. It just goes crazy, it’s just jumping between all these meters. And when I was transcribing that, I was thinking, “Now I know these guys didn’t sit down and go, ‘Hey let’s have a 4/4 bar, let’s have a 2/4 bar, and let’s throw a 3/8 bar in there, shall we?'” They just played stuff that sounded, to them, cool and worked. And I love that, I think that tune just really works well with the orchestra, I have a blast when we play that.

Have you ever heard any feedback from the band about your show?

Not this particular show, you know we have for some of our other shows, we have like 13 or 14 shows that we do (including Queen, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd), not just Zeppelin. But John Bonham’s daughter came out to see us in Los Angeles once, she was really impressed. We introduced her while she was in the audience and she gave us a big thumbs up, so she had a good time!

Have you thought about which classic rock artist you might tackle next with one of these shows?

I haven’t really thought about it, I probably won’t until next year. I try to do one or two a year, there’s plenty of classic rock music out there!

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