It’s not always easy taking over the family business, especially when you’re forced to do it publicly and in the face of huge expectations. And when your dad was generally considered to be one of the greatest drummers of all time and his band pretty much set the standard for every outfit that came after, well, suffice it to say it’s a daunting challenge.
Yet that was the legacy Jason Bonham, the offspring of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, had to accept after his dad’s death in 1980. But rather than resent this predicament, he embraced it and even managed to take over his father’s drum stool on those rare occasions when the band got back together, whether it was an impromptu jam at his wedding in 1990 or the much-anticipated public reunions in 1988 and 2007.
“Yes and no,” Bonham, a South Florida resident, responds when asked if he felt pressure after being drafted to take over his dad’s old gig. “The door opens for the name, but if the talent isn't there, it can close just as fast. This holds true for anyone that is part of a legacy. For me, it took a long time to get to where I am now in life. Fourteen years of sobriety has been a major key.”
Bonham’s current venture — one that ranks among his most celebrated efforts to date — is anchoring the Led Zeppelin Experience. The show is a celebration of the music that ensured Zeppelin’s immortality.
“We don't dress up,” Bonham insists, when asked about the concept behind the initiative. “We don't have a look-like contest. Led Zeppelin has been a part of my life since I was 2 years old. I jammed with them a few times while my father was alive at soundchecks, album recording sessions, and rehearsals. This show was created to honor my father’s music and what it has meant to me. In addition to the concert, I include our home movies, personal stories, and a drum solo duet. There were 35 Led Zeppelin songs chosen from every album, including songs that were only done in ’69 and ’70. The show is three hours long, broken up by a 15-minute intermission.”
However, when it comes to credence, what matters most is that he’s also gotten the endorsement of one of the originals. “I told Robert about the show five years ago,” Bonham recalls. “We discussed it, and he said, 'Go and do what you feel. No one plays those songs like you do.'”
"This is a project that only plays 30 shows a year, [but] it's something that is heartfelt and uncompromised," Bonham says. "There is no denying the power of these songs in a live environment."
Of course, the question everyone wants to know concerns the possibility of another Zeppelin reunion. He demurs but expresses his gratitude for having participated previously. “It was huge pressure, but we were ready. I was ready, and we did it,” he reflects. “It was a very special night, and to win a Grammy for it — wow!”
The bulk of Bonham’s career has been spent establishing his own résumé, beginning with his band Air Race at age 17 and continuing through stints with the namesake outfit Bonham, an Indiana-based band called the Healing Sixes, British hard rockers UFO, bluesman Joe Bonamassa, and, perhaps most notably, a late incarnation of Foreigner. One-off appearances included a role alongside Ted Nugent, Evan Seinfeld, Sebastian Bach, and Scott Ian playing the drummer in the fictional band Damnocracy on the VH1 reality show SuperGroup and a cameo as a member of the band Steel Dragon in the Mark Wahlberg movie Rock Star.
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“The Led Zeppelin Experience show is a very small part of what I do,” he insists. “Over the last five years, I have recorded three albums with Black Country Communion. I've worked with Hans Zimmer on the Man of Steel soundtrack and created a drum library for film with him which will outlive me."
Bonham has been playing to his own beat practically since birth, picking up his first set of sticks at age 5. “I don't remember being taught,” he reflects. “When I was 13, Dad asked me to play the Genesis song ‘Turn It On Again.’ I played it about ten times before I got it down. I found out later that Phil had just beaten Dad in a drum poll in the U.K., so I think he wanted me to play it so he could say, ‘My kid can do that!’ But I came full circle when I played drums for Phil Collins in August 2014 for three weeks. He's an idol of mine, so when I told him the story about Dad, he laughed and said, ‘Your father was one of my heroes!’
"People say I play in a similar style, but I'm a huge critic of myself, and I don't even get close in my eyes," Bonham says. "I try every day just to play my best.”
Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. 7 p.m. Sunday, May 3, at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 5747 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $29 to $49. Visit ticketmaster.com, or call 407-351-5483.