In my opinion nothing proves the staying power of a Rock & Roll band more than a sold out show on a Friday night at one of the hottest venues in New York City. Such would be the case when the one and only Zebra returned to the Big Apple for another appearance. We caught them back in June of 2007 at this very same spot and I am happy to report that it was also a sold out affair. It's been about twenty five years since Zebra released their self-titled debut on Atlantic Records and many of those who caught on to what the band was all about in the beginning have remained loyal fans throughout the years. Back in the day, the band was transplanted Louisiana natives who set up shop on Long Island at the suggestion of Pepe Marchello from the Good Rats and as a result became one of the area’s most cherished attractions. The Island residents welcomed this band and essentially made them their own with little hesitation and the move found the band performing to packed houses in the biggest rock clubs that the time had available. To many music fans those were the days and they are fond memories in today’s time. Tonight’s show would be to my knowledge the bands second appearance at the venerated B.B. King Clues Club and with their Long Island network of followers in attendance would sell out well in advance and leave hundreds of disappointed fans unable to come in for the show. That was a shame because tonight would not be only the wonderful Zebra set of originals, but also a completely loaded set of Led Zeppelin material that harkened back to the time when the group played mostly covers. Zebra is one of the few acts that could and did do Led Zeppelin material justice as a cover band and every so often they would pull out a classic Zep number during their regular set. As you can imagine, finding the night set to present a complete set of such material made this all the more reason for snaring a ticket early. Here is some of how the night went down.
Doors were very early for this one and found many of the seated crowd raring to go at 6:00, and the opening act was still going to be a good two hours away. That meant a 9:00pm start for Zebra and having attended a number of Metal shows at the venue, the three hour wait seemed a bit much. Generally, a 9:00 main band often finds that some three openers had hit the stage starting at 7:00. This would not be the case tonight as there was only one opening act. A group called Race Odyssey who I had only caught a few songs of out of the entire set. They sounded ok to me, but the set had a number of covers involved in it, and since I was pretty much in full Zebra mode only, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to them. I was surprised that they did almost a full hour, since I seldom see the opener being allotted that much time. Luckily, 9:00pm was just saying hello to the crowd as the time for Zebra to arrive drew closer by the second.
If you have ever seen Zebra perform before then you already know that there is not much going on in the visual sense and instead this is a whole different cerebral thing that is loaded with skillful musical display. They were never much about image and instead focused on delivering some of the best sounds you could hope to hear out of a Hard Rock band bar none. You went to a Zebra show, and you got entertained, enlightened, and eager for more. The last time at B.B. King’s, we didn’t have original drummer Guy Gelso on board and instead found veteran skin basher Bobby Rondinelli. He is a heavy hitter whose resume includes work with Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Scorpions and Blue Oyster Cult, so he is always going to be on point. He did great that night, but I admit it was preferable to find Guy on the drum chair, especially given tonight’s special second set. They kicked if off with the expected opener of “As I Said Before” from their self-titled album and it’s truly a good mood setter for the band since it slowly trudges along and brings you right into the vibe of their sound. For a song that was done over two decades ago, I found it still rather fresh. Of course I am guilty of feeling this about most of the bands first album as it remains one of my continued favorites to this very day.
The first set tonight would cover a lot of ground from the bands four albums and the great thing about them all is that the songs all work together well when mixed together. A second album hit like “Wait Until The Summer’s Gone” is the perfect lead in to new classics like “Arabian Nights” and each are loaded with that special melody that made the debut so special. It seemed that I was not alone in the crowd of folks who offered homage to that release as when songs like “Who’s Behind The Door” and “Take Your Fingers From My Hair” were done the place practically exploded. I cant recommend enough that people get themselves a copy of that album to understand more of what I am talking about here without sounding the rambling loon. It seemed as though the largest portion of the set would be the first album and as mentioned this is fine by me, but there was also a healthy compliment of their last studio album “Zebra IV”. New fans might actually be surprised at how true this one kept to the bands original model, even though it had been released some fifteen years after their third album. During the set we would also be treated to bassist/keyboardist Felix Hanneman’s solo tune “Rock Candy”. It’s a solid track, and also very Zebra-esque when it comes down to it. Guy would deliver a drum solo on his magnificently sounding DW Drums and to be honest he has not seemed to lose an ounce of his own thunderous percussion power yet. I always felt that he should have been much more popular than he seemed to become as he sure deserves the praise. Still, it is nice to know that a cult following is at your command as opposed to nothing. These are the fans that buy everything and come to numerous amounts of shows, and one cannot find fault in that in my opinion. Randy’s voice and guitar playing were fantastic tonight and while there are many singers who lose some edge over the years it doesn’t seem to have happened to Randy. His high pitched wails still rattle the glasses around the venue and he is one of the better guitar players that I have seen in bands of this type. The guys got to every song that I wanted to hear during their two hour set and would close it out with their blockbuster radio hit “Tell Me What You Want”. Yes, they had some radio airplay back in the day but that was the only one to generate some rotation, at least in the mainstream market. They had scores of college and independent radio stations playing a lot more of their stuff for years. One of the main bits of audience banter from Randy was about the Long Island clubs and he named several with reverence and with each one found various parts of the audience screaming a little louder, as I assumed these were patrons from them when they were in their heyday. I liked this aspect of the banter for it showed me that Zebra fondly remembers their beginnings and appreciates the people who came out them and seem to still. They would take a little bit of a break and return for some Led Zeppelin.
Midnight struck and it was time to get the Led out. Now I cant recall a time when I didn’t enjoy the music of Led Zeppelin when it was either played over the stereo or by a band on the stage, well, perhaps if the band destroyed it, but this was not to be the case here tonight. They would return to the stage with “Rock And Roll” and while the audience remained sitting at their tables you could tell from various points that many wanted to jump up and rock a little harder. That’s the down side of the table setup - it makes true rocking out a little harder to get away with, as you end up ruining the time for the people behind or next to you. I admit that I wasn’t sure how long of a set we were going to get from the boys but they sure did knock out quite the hit roster and touched upon classics like “Black Dog”, “Kashmir” and “Stairway To Heaven”. I did think that was going to be a closer, but I would be wrong there. The excitement for the Zeppelin material seemed to transcend the fact that Zebra was doing it as the original band members and John Bonham’s son had reunited for a show in honor of Ahmet Ertegun only months before. This made more of a re-interest in what they were all about in the first place and since that group did so much for Rock music there were no complaints. Zebra would not stay focused on the known songs and instead present some of the more mysterious numbers like “Ten Years Gone” and “How Many More Times”. I totally enjoyed those but would have liked to hear them slip in “Thank You” or “Goin’ To California”. As the night seemed to be drawing to a close, Randy would bring out his son James, who played some guitar while Felix’s stand in bassist came out as well. Felix announced that he had undergone a major surgery not too long before these shows and had to make sure that someone was on hand should he not be able to do it. Lucky for us he played fine, but to thank his stand in, he allowed him to jam out in front of a capacity crowd in the venue. In the end we got some four hours of amazing music and based on the reaction from the audience you can be sure that they will do something like this again.
My main criticism for the whole affair lies mainly in the bands choosing to have an opening act and without any offense to the actual band this was a truly bad idea and here's why. The doors opened at six for this sold out show and the headliner wouldn’t hit until 9:00pm, then the second set would be at midnight. That’s a long night and I could tell that some who were slipping out were doing so to make a last train to their areas. You could also tell that they left in hesitation and were trying to catch just one more note before they split. Should Zebra do something like this again, I think it would be more enjoyable as a solid “Evening With Zebra” affair with an 8:00pm start, no openers. In the end, the bottom line is that they kick ass, have material that is beyond relevant and should be given some props for still doing it with such enthusiasm. Do yourself a favor and catch them before they decide to retire. I’m sure if they do that it will be one hell of a party.
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