Music

Calgary blues-rockers Mike MacKenzie Band celebrate their whole lotta love for Led Zeppelin by marking 50th anniversary of iconic debut

“The scene of the crime.”

That’s how Mike MacKenzie describes the room in which we’re sitting.

It’s Mikey’s on 12th on a weekday afternoon, and it’s a venue to which he’ll be returning Saturday, Jan. 12 in order to, one assumes, commit the act of killing it.

The scene of said crime is almost as important as the date itself.

It should be a familiar one to lovers of both “the rock” and “the roll” of the classic and blues varietals.

It is the exact day that a lil’ English combo named Led Zeppelin released their eponymous debut a half century ago — inarguably changing the game and the course of popular music, inspiring millions of musicians to this very day.

Not surprisingly, MacKenzie is one of those.

And now the local guitarist-vocalist and his scorching blues-rock act, the Mike MacKenzie Band (drummer James Wise, bassist Tom Hart, guitarist Kurtis Downs, and for this evening, Edmonton keyboardist Oliver Westall), will be marking the milestone by slaying what should be a full house with a set of Zep tunes, original material and classic covers, and then performing the album in order and in its entirety.

On this afternoon, MacKenzie sat down and spoke with theYYSCENE to talk about the night, beginning with the most basic question of why he would undertake such a task.

A: Why. Because collectively with the group it would be our favourite band, something we could all agree on. I put them right at the top of my influence in bands that I enjoy playing and covering, and with an opportunity like 50 years to the day of their first album being released, why not? We did a similar thing, just kind of impromptu last year, where we covered the second album and that kind of kickstarted the whole idea … Maybe we’ll do both this year because they both happened to come out in the same year (Led Zeppelin II was released Oct. 22, 1969 in North America), we already have the other one in the bag, we just have to refresh that later on in October. 

We scrambled to get our asses in gear in a couple months and learned the first album, too. We knew little bits and pieces because they work their way into our covers list or our medley list, so just little pieces. But as far as full songs on that album go we only knew one all the way through, so we had to do a good amount of work to get it prepared, but it’s been a labour of love and a really fun learning process, and of course you get a whole new appreciation for the album. I wouldn’t have called it my favourite album of theirs before, I’ve always liked Physical Graffiti, I kind of started in the middle and worked backwards. As my appreciation for the blues deepened I started to have a deeper appreciation for their first two albums because they were really heavily blues based.

Q: Other than how intricate or how good they were, what surprised you most about learning the songs?

A: Actually one of the things that I was really impressed with and was surprising to me was how amazing these final takes were that ended up on the album, because I’ve heard some outtakes, demo versions, live versions from the same period of the same songs and they all came out quite a bit different. So these were really the definitive master takes of the songs, you can hear that they’re all playing together live in the studio — and the studio time was limited at that (36 hours) so I’m not even sure how many takes of each song they would have done, not very many … The performance of it stood out to me, it was a band that had been warmed up on the road, having just come off a Scandinavian tour (as the New Yardbirds) right when they started, so they had a little bit of time to stage test them, but they really got their asses in gear and got down what they wanted to get down in a short amount of time …

And another huge thing for me that stood out was the dynamics, the use of light and shade, as Jimmy Page would put it. You’ve got you hard-hitting sections, you’ve got your acoustic, mellow breakdown areas and everything in between — it’s just a really strong debut.

Q: This helped you gain a new appreciation for it, do you hope the audience on Saturday does as well?

A: Absolutely. I hope that they have been listening to the album for the last few weeks and can compare us to that — and hopefully we don’t stray too far from it — and they’re reacquainting themselves to the songs and getting into maybe the deeper cuts. For example if they’ve only heard the radio songs or the famous ones, every single Zeppelin album has … deep cuts, ones that aren’t played as much, and to me that’s their best stuff. I’ve always been drawn to listening to the album as a whole and then picking my favourites, not letting the radio or promo decide that for me. So hopefully people that are going to come to the show are doing that in the meantime, and we can not disappoint them and do a fairly good job of replicating it, but still putting our own spin in some areas. This is probably, along with the second album, their loosest, jammiest, bluesiest album, and when they played this stuff live it would be very much different than the studio versions, for sure … But at the same time we are paying homage and people are familiar with the songs, so we don’t want to stray too far. I think it would be sacrilege to go too far off course with it. But there’s little areas where we don’t want to feel too restricted and we want to put our own nuance and improvs in.

Q: To that end, do you also hope people gain a new appreciation for you and your band? Do you hope that people can maybe draw that parallel from Zeppelin to what you’re doing?

A: (We’re) definitely not trying to compare ourselves to Zeppelin, there’s no way you could ever hit that level of innovation and awesomeness, but hopefully they can at least see where some of my influences come from and that I enjoy playing the stuff, and if I can introduce my original music to another wave of Zeppelin fans, I think that they would like my original stuff, too, lots of them. So, yeah, in a way. But like I said we’re not trying to be them, we’re not trying to compare ourselves to them, we’re just trying to show our appreciation and influence by them as a group.

Mike MacKenzie Band Plays Led Zeppelin takes place Saturday, Jan. 12 at Mikey’s on 12th. Tickets are available at the door but reservations are recommended and available by calling 403-452-8060.

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