“Red Rocks always has the best crowd!” exclaimed Jason Bonham halfway through his set of Led Zeppelin classics. With an image of his father John pictured on his bass drum-head, he continued, “I’ve been doing this for 13 years, it’s my way of saying thank you to the greatest rock ’n roll drummer ever.” Indeed, the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience (JBLZE) does the tribute thing as well as anyone could hope to. The 4-piece band (augmented by a 5th player off to the side on keys & acoustic guitar) ripped through an hour-long opening set, focusing on the first five Zep albums. With Jimmy Sakurai (Mr. Jimmy) striking a Page-like pose on guitar, it felt as close to the real thing as one might get these days.
Bonham had his drums up in the mix and it totally paid off. Even the more mellow acoustic numbers were infused with extra drum fills, such as when the band went into extended jams like at the end of “Thank You” or “Ramble On”. But when they decided to go full-on, they really brought it: “Immigrant Song” was one of the highlights of the night with a searing rendition and added guitar solo. Bonham’s sincerity and devotion were palpable, his performance impeccable. They packed in 11 songs but could have gone on much longer, the crowd clearly never was going to get enough of these classics.
After a half-hour break, with lasers being “sound-checked” amidst billows of fog, it was clear that the echoes of Floyd were headed our way. “We’ve got a long night of music so it’s up to you to pace yourself,” warned Warren Haynes at the outset. First up was a 50-minute set of Mule’s original material, starting with “Same As It Ever Was” from their excellent new album “Peace…Like A River”. In fact, half of their set was compromised of new songs (“It being Red Rocks, we’ll give you another new one,” commented Haynes) including the charged “After The Storm”.
There were jams, of course, the second song “Time To Confess” found Haynes already leaning into the six strings with inspiration alongside Danny Louis on keys. New bassist Kevin Scott – who was brought in this past spring to start touring after longtime bassist Jorgen Carlsson left the band – fit like a glove, easily finding his place in the material and holding down his own on every song.
The Mule’s approach to Pink Floyd is not one of note-for-note recreation, so this isn’t a tribute band performance like Brit Floyd might offer. Rather, it’s about 90% following the important parts of the original but then adding their own jamming and interpretations, Mule-style. For fans of both Mule’s distinctive sound and the original material, it’s a great combo. However, it does seem to be lacking some of the nuanced subtlety that makes Floyd unique, but that hardly seemed to matter to the Red Rocks crowd who ate up each choice from the band.
Although the evening was billed as “Dark Side of the Mule” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of rock’s most impactful albums ever, the band equally featured songs from “Meddle” and “Wish You Were Here”. The band brought in Jackie Green on keys/vocals/guitar and Ron Holloway on sax to fill out the sound, as well as Machan Taylor and Sophia Ramos on background vocals, a Floyd staple. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pt. 1-5)” is always a great way to open a set and give Haynes a chance to play those classic Gilmour licks in his own way. It also brought Holloway onto the stage for his first sax solo to big applause. He would stay on throughout the night, adding his soloing even to songs which don’t usually feature sax like “Echoes”.
Surprisingly, one of the highlights came next as drummer Matt Abts donned a pink coat while taking lead vocals for “Have A Cigar”. As it was originally sung by Roy Harper instead of a member of Floyd, this seemed to give Abts permission to have some fun with it, even as he was mostly speaking the lyrics as opposed to singing. When he rearranged the lyrics to be able to say, “Oh by the way, which one’s Mule?” the crowd erupted. With plenty of extra drum fills added, Abts really made this one his own.
The distinctive heartbeats that open DSOTM brought cheers, accompanied by the logo of a mule in the center of the Floyd prism. Most of the album was performed sequentially, leaving out Waters’ closing “Brain Damage/Eclipse”, but including the seldom-performed “On The Run”. Often the band added in more than is on the original recording – solo’ing, jams, etc… – but occasionally something was left out like the signature slide/pedal steel guitar on “Breathe”. Towards the end of “Any Colour You Like” the band drifted into “One Of These Days”, “Fearless” and ultimately “Echoes”. An epic set-list, for sure, which was then capped off by encores of “Comfortably Numb” and “Wish You Were Here”.
All in all, it was an evening of classics at the legendary Red Rocks venue, benefiting even further from ideal weather on a perfect August eve. Dark Side of Mule On The Rocks plus Bonham’s Zeppelin was an extended treat for fans, most of whom were well into their 50s and beyond but rocking out like it was 50 years earlier.