Vanessa Fernandez – When The Levee Breaks – Groove Note Records 45 rpm stereo vinyl (3 discs), (5/16/2016), 63:33 ****1/2:
Singer pays homage to Led Zeppelin in acoustic glory!
(Vanessa Fernandez – vocals; Tim Pierce – guitars, arrangements; Jim Keltner – drums; Chris Chaney – bass; Jim Cox – keyboards; Charlie Bisharat – violin; Luis Conte – percussion)
Vanessa Fernandez began her career as part of the hip hop groups Urban Xchange and Parking Lot Pimp. The Singapore native remained a local act and recorded an EP, titled Vandetta in 2013. Additionally she became a renowned radio personality, hosting a hip hop show. It seemed that her musical expansion might be limited. That changed in 2014 with the release of her debut, Use Me on Groove Note Records. (*******). This album featured quality studio covers of soul artists like Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Al Green. There were also versions of Blood Sweat & Tears and Queen. The auspicious project featured top-notch musicians that included Tim Pierce (guitars) and Jim Cox (keyboards). There was significant anticipation for her sophomore effort.
In keeping with her maverick sensibility, Fernandez has chosen to put together a tribute to rock legend Led Zeppelin. When the Beatles disbanded in 1970, it seemed that rock’s only holdover messengers were The Rolling Stones and The Who. But Led Zeppelin became superstars and assumed the mantel of rock and roll icons in the 70s. Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass, keyboards) and John Bonham produced a thunderous distillation of psychedelic blues that paved the way for a generation of heavy metal and power rock. Many bands pay homage to Led Zeppelin, especially Heart.
Taking on a stylized, legendary band like this is ambitious, if not daunting. When The Levee Breaks has been recorded in 100% analogue, 180-gram vinyl and presented in a three-disc, triple gatefold album. Joining arranger guitarist Pierce and Cox are veteran drummer Jin Keltner, bassist Chris Chaney, violinist Charlie Bisharat and percussionist Luis Conte. It’s clear from the start that Fernandez is not trying to emulate the Led Zeppelin dynamic, no one can! Side A opens with an understated acoustic folk blues read on “Immigration Song”. The loping cadence is a natural backdrop to the jazzier vocal flexing by Fernandez. Charlie Bisharat’s violin adds exotic shading. The introduction to “Black Dog” captures some of the original Led Zeppelin spirit as Keltner pushes the jam with Bisharat’s hot licks. The inevitable transition to a sultrier blues arrangement showcases the organic complement of Fernandez’ voice and Pierce’s acoustic guitar. Her phrasing is reminiscent of Plant.
Perhaps the highlight of this album is “Kashmir”. This iconic track from Physical Graffiti is a bona-fide legacy of rock and roll. Bisharat’s opening Eastern-flavored violin lines are terrific. Page and Plant were known for this aspect of their music and continued the trend as a duo. Then, the band kicks in with the hypnotic, head-thumping rhythm. It is faithful to the original, but maintains the stylization of the album. Fernandez adds just the right amount of toughness. She adds a gritty touch to the groove-laden “Trampled Underfoot”. Luis Conte contributes some nimble percussion. A tribute to Led Zeppelin would not be legitimate without genuine blues music. Side C sees to that. LZ paid tribute to American Blues when they recorded When The Levee Breaks as part of Led Zeppelin IV. Fernandez and company (especially Pierce’s slide work) approximate the Delta origins of the 1929 Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie Song. It is a stirring performance. “The Lemon Song” is also effective and has some lively Hammond riffs by Jim Cox. Fernandez is versed in blues singing, and exhibits soulful resonance.
Not every choice hits the mark. “Whole Lotta Love (Acoustic)” is too sedate. The backyard blues vibe adds tedium to this rocker. But the more energetic “Ramblin’ On” encapsulates the intrinsic pulse of Zeppelin as Keltner puts some muscle into the song. There are two versions of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and both of them mirror the essence of Led Zeppelin, slow blues with strong flourishes. The album concludes with a more accessible rock version of ”Whole Lotta Love”. Side F included two bonus tracks, exclusively on vinyl.
Vanessa Fernandez – When The Levee Breaks is a significant release. The combination of paying tribute to a monumental band like Led Zeppelin is framed as a personal musical journey. The sound quality of this vinyl recording is outstanding. Fernandez’s voice has a visceral, sultry tonality. Pierce’s acoustic guitar has a shimmering, natural quality. The stereo-mix is vibrant and the low-end drum and bass are prominent. The expansive triple gatefold and double record sleeves are superior. The album is also available on SACD. The pricey vinyl version ($69.99) may be too high for some listeners.
Side A: Immigrant Song; Black Dog
Side B: Kashmir; Trampled Underfoot
Side C: When The Levee Breaks; The Lemon Song
Side D: Whole Lotta Love (Acoustic); Ramble On
Side E: Babe I’m Gonna Leave You; Immigrant Song (Reprise)
Side F: Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (Alternate Mix); Whole Lotta Love (Full Rock Mix)