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Classic or Rock?
The Song Remains the Same for Led Zeppelin Tribute Band.
Singer Michael White of the Led Zeppelin tribute band "The White"
rehearses with the Eastwood Collegiate Institute student orchestra
with teacher Kirsten Hunsberger-Shortt.
Photo by Peter Lee: Record staff
December 12, 2009
BY JOEL RUBINOFF, RECORD STAFF KITCHENER
It's like a scene out of the Jack Black movie comedy School of Rock.
On one side, seated behind their music stands in the music room of Kitchener's Eastwood Collegiate, a gaggle of fresh-faced teenagers focus intently on their music charts as they cradle the violins, violas, cellos and stand-up basses normally reserved for the music of classical masters like Mozart and Brahms.
On the other side, at a podium at the front of the room, stands a shaggy haired belter whose own high school days are four decades in the past, a grizzled rock survivor eager to mesh his sandpaper yowl to an orchestrated wall of sound that will bring to powerful life the music of another classical master - Led Zeppelin.
His name is Michael White, and students of rock history will be impressed to learn that before he made it his life's work to pay tribute to the seminal blues-rock pioneers back when Elvis Presley was still leaping about in flamboyant spandex jumpsuits, he was the original singer for the band that morphed into metal dudes Motley Crue. He later signed a $350,000 solo deal with Atlantic Records on the recommendation of the guy to whom his vocals bore the closest resemblance - Led Zep frontman Robert Plant.
Long story short - Crue guitarist Nikki Sixx ripped him off, and because he sounded too much like Zep singer Plant, White's solo album bombed.
Who cares. Never one to stand on ego, White decided to play to his strengths and formed, with support from his Zep mentors, what is believed to be rock's first tribute band, "The White".
Thirty two years later he's in a Kitchener classroom, none the worse for wear, prepping for Saturday's intriguing musical mash up, Orchestral Zeppelin - a benefit for the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum - with a 50-piece student orchestra for whom Zep, technically, is as archaic as the war of 1812.
"They're pre-ego,'' laughs White, a personable 54-year-old whose rumpled clothing, "chillin' " demeanor and long, flowing locks give the impression of an avuncular grizzly bear.
"It's so much fun to play with kids that are really keen to play. It makes me feel young again.''
As he waves his hand to introduce the song No Quarter, the students respond in kind, with violins wailing, basses rumbling and cellos doing whatever it is cellos do as the room fills with music that sounds at once sacrilegious and surprisingly powerful.
"Surprisingly, the first time I did this (in Toronto), half a dozen students were wearing Led Zeppelin T-shirts,'' points out White, who began writing the charts for classics like Whole Lotta Love and Stairway To Heaven four years ago. "They relate to the music in probably the same way their mom and dad did."
With, of course, the reserve normally associated with orchestral musicians.
"Just feel it!" commands music teacher Kirsten Hunsberger-Shortt, whose humourous admonitions are met with respectful compliance by these dignified orchestral volunteers.
"Don't wuss out! . . . this is rock 'n' roll! . . . and "no tremolos unless we tell you!"
Despite their lack of familiarity with the source material, and what seems, at times, like a studious, stentorian seriousness, the students do, in fact, "get" it.
"For some reason, hard rock, rock 'n' roll and metal sound so awesome with symphonies,'' insists stand-up bassist Torin Young, 14, one of the few musicians familiar with Zep's musical canon.
"I don't know why. It just emphasizes the music more. It adds that extra 'oomph'!''
"It definitely doesn't feel like Mozart,'' agrees bassist Emma Wehner, 16. "I'm just tapping my feet and I don't even know the Zep tunes. There's no words for it - it's an experience.''
Gliding through a blistering rendition of the Zep classic Whole Lotta Love, White faces his youthful protégés and hits the final lyric: "waaaayyyy down insiiiiiide . . . woooooman, yooooo neeeed . . . (bum, bum, bum) . . . "
Then, interrupting his vocal, he paints a picture of Saturday's all-stops-out finale.
"The drummer will be going crazy on the other end of the stage and you'll see me jump up in the air and when I come down, we end it!" he relays with feverish excitement.
The students - who may have trouble envisioning such extreme rock star hijinx - take it in without comment and, after White bumps fists individually with each of them, quietly pack up their instruments to leave.
Rock 'n' roll and high school orchestras - two things that, like peanut butter and chocolate, may appear to have little in common, but if this rehearsal is any indication, will create a sound that far surpasses the sum of its parts.
What: Orchestral Zeppelin featuring Michael White and The White with Eastwood Collegiate Student Symphony.
When: Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009.
Tickets: $25; advance from 519-744-1370; The Children's Museum (10 King St. W.; Kitchener); Encore Records (54 Queen St. S., Kitchener); Orange Monkey (5 Princess St. W., Waterloo).
Michael White with Jimmy Page
Michael White with Robert Plant
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