Stéfan Cédilot has spent 11 years recounting stories of how Led Zeppelin built a career on essentially pillaging the works of others in “Zeppelin Was a Cover Band.” Alongside audiences and co-creator Ben Kalman, who spins Zeppelin tunes and their inspired songs from artists as far back as the 1920s, they take moments to listen while Cédilot identifies what ended up in Zeppelin’s canon by the late 1960s.
While at first glance the show may sound like a jab at Led Zeppelin and their rocky history of copyright lawsuits, “Zeppelin Was a Cover Band” is a more endearing combination of live storytelling and theatrical performance.
“We’re huge fans of Zeppelin,” Cédilot clarifies. “I say this because a lot people don’t get the irony of the title. Some people assume we’re Zeppelin haters, and we’re going to prove they were the worst band ever. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.”
Cédilot and company use better-known songs and hits from the Zep canon almost as backing tracks to the stories behind them, which they’ve researched ad nauseam. The whole point of the show is to tell a larger story—a history, really—of the blues.
“We talk about all these folk artists and blues artists that influenced Led Zeppelin,” he continues. “We talk about artists that Led Zeppelin grew up with—who they idolized and the artists that basically determined what would become the ‘Zeppelin sound.’”
While die-hard fans or aficionados may be skeptical—even to the point of debate before seeing the show—Cédilot says he doesn’t get a lot of folks disagreeing with what he presents. On the contrary, most of the time, folks approach him afterward with more ideas, stories or songs they should add to the mix. After more than a decade of touring, it still happens after almost every performance.
“People don’t realize how much we actually do know,” Cédilot points out. “When we first started and people came up to us saying, ‘You didn’t about this song or that song,’ at the time, it was highly likely we had no idea. Zeppelin fans who came to those shows taught us a lot. Over the years, when people come up to us with this or that, we’d do our research, and if they were right, we’d probably integrate it into the show. After 11 years of doing this, I’d say we’re 90 percent sure we’re aware of everything. It’s been a few years since someone was able to tell us something we were not actually aware of.”
That said, “Zeppelin Was a Cover Band” has evolved significantly in recent years. It used to be a solid two-hour show, but they had to cut it down when they started nationally touring for festivals like this year’s Cucalorus 23, which will be their debut in the United States, on November 10.
Though it was difficult to cut 45 minutes, Cédilot wanted to avoid leaping down the rabbit hole, so to speak. For example, there’s a story behind every song. Yet, quite frankly, some can be boring.
“It still has to be an interesting, entertaining 75-minute show,” he notes. “But if we analyzed every single song Zeppelin ever made, we’d end up with like a six-hour thing. . . . In the end, it was all about keeping it dynamic and making sure people enjoy the show throughout the whole 75 minutes. Whereas, with the older version, you could tell when people had just had enough, [laughs] and even the most hardcore Led Zeppelin fan could not take any more information.”
One of Cédilot’s favorite stories remains to be of famed 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for his unearthly talents on guitar. According to legend, Johnson met the devil somewhere at the crossroads of the Mississippi Delta to make the deal.
“As the rumor spread over the years, the story of crossroads became infamous and was taken to heart by many,” Cédilot explains. “It truly seemed to be the most plausible explanation for Johnson’s abilities. And Robert Johnson decided to roll with it. He even wrote a song called ‘Crossroad Blues,’ where he decided to set the record straight and tell his own version of his meeting with the devil. Basically, for a lot of people, he confirmed he had definitely sold his soul. Obviously, the whole thing was invented, but it makes for an amazing story.”
Cédilot also notes Johnson was a master of the sexual metaphor in blues, and ties it into his show with Zeppelin’s famous line, “Squeeze me baby/‘till the juice runs down my leg,” from 1969’s “The Lemon Song” off “Led Zeppelin II.”
Cédilot exploits his own animated “geeky” personality as the storyteller as well. Surrounded by a simple set, which could be a friend’s living room or basement hangout, he uses passionate enthusiasm to communicate with the audience and play a bit of air guitar.
“It’s not so much about Led Zeppelin,” he observes. “And in the age of the Internet, anyone who wants to know this stuff can just Google it. They don’t need me to figure it out. The only thing we’ve really got for us is they don’t know how I’m going to tell the story.”
Though the fact remains Led Zeppelin stole many a song, melody and lyric for their own music, Cédilot highlights how wild the ‘60s were. In some ways, it was the wild west of copyright laws. There there was no structure to protect the rights of blues songwriters from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and even ‘50s.
“So when all of these British rock bands from the ‘60s started recording their favorite old-American blues numbers, there was no obligation to credit the songs,” he continues. “That’s just how it worked in those days. One of the only exceptions for that era was The Rolling Stones, who, despite this, have insisted the original artists be credited for the songs. Though, they had no legal obligation to do it.”
As a genuine fan of music in general, Cédilot tries to remain as objective as possible. For him, while people can judge artists as human beings, it doesn’t change the art itself.
“For me, [Led Zeppelin] music is amazing—you can’t really say objectively to the contrary. At the same time, there’s a whole context that has to do with the era, but it’s pretty clear to me that by 1976, if people were still doing this, they were very much aware. When [Zeppelin] started getting sued in the ‘80s, they really didn’t try so hard to deny it. I think they saw it coming; I think they expected this to happen at some point. So they went to court and they lost. A lot. In the end, they had to credit all of the artists.