Ten years ago, a group of young musicians, some of them not even young enough to vote, rent a car or get into an R-rated movie unaccompanied, played a sold-out show at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as Misty Mountain, a Led Zeppelin tribute act. It was a powerful performance (this reporter was there) and one that, in many ways, guitarist Justin Mazer has been chasing ever since.
“It was the first and only time I’ve been at the Jazz Cafe for a sold-out show,” said Mazer, who along with vocalist Mike Dougherty and a slew of guests will reconvene Misty Mountain for two shows at the Jazz Cafe on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23. Each show will feature a unique setlist and different guests, the first group culled from Mazer’s travels as a nationally touring guitarist, and the second night boasting a roster of well-known players from Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“I’m very excited,” said Mazer, who previously played with Leroy Justice and Tom Hamilton’s American Babies before recently joining Ryan Montbleau’s band. “[Promoter] Tom Moran was gracious enough and River Street was gracious enough to give us two nights. So we came up with this idea of the first night being a feature of some of my favorite musicians…and night two will be more of an alumni night with people who have played with Mike Dougherty and me.”
On Friday, the two core members will be joined by Erik Deutch of Leftover Salmon on keyboards, bass player Karina Rykman of Marco Benevento’s band and drummer David Butler of Guster. On Saturday, they’ll be joined by bassist Matt Gabriel, who is a member of Dustin Douglas and the Electric Gentlemen and has performed with Miz, and drummer A.J. Jump of Underground Saints and King Radio. Guitarists Aaron Fink, formerly of Breaking Benjamin, and Douglas, who in addition to fronting his own group performed with The Badlees, will be special guests on night two.
Mazer said he started planning the two-night run about nine months ago.
“The last couple of years I’ve been busy, and so has everyone else, but generally it’s been right around the weekend of Christmas, kind of like a holiday party. I just got the idea, being that all roads of my own, all the different bands and gigs, all lead back to the Misty Mountain thing that was the very first show I did in the area that put me on the map to perform professionally with other people.
“It kind of meant a lot to me to do something special for the 10-year anniversary and make it a bigger event than one night.”
Like many rock guitarists, Mazer was influenced by Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. But what in particular about Page’s playing caught his ear?
“It’s the freedom, first and foremost. It’s the looseness, it’s more of a vibe and a feeling than maybe a technical proficiency thing,” said Mazer. “I believe I said it years ago: He could’ve been on the looser and sloppier side, but that’s what makes it what it is. The beauty lies in the imperfection. It’s not so much about learning the solos note for note; some you obviously need to learn note for note. It’s the freedom and the vibe and the commitment to the rock and the heaviness and even the Celtic kind of magic that some of those albums had, like ‘ZOSO,’ ‘3,’ ‘4’ and ‘Physical Graffiti’ has that Celtic, medieval vibe. Hard rock and metal kind of traces back to that stuff.”
Part of Mazer’s early musical education came from his older brother, who taped NEPA classic rock station Rock 107’s 500 best songs of all time. “And he said you have to listen to the whole thing to No. 1.” That song? Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
“We will not be playing ‘Stairway,’ just for the record,” Mazer said, before backtracking and adding, “actually, I wouldn’t rule it out completely.”
Mazer, Dougherty, Gabriel, Jump and guests Holly Bowling and Nick Driscoll performed Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains The Same” in its entirety at the Jazz Cafe — “Stairway” and all — at the Jazz Cafe last December. (You can listen to that show here.)
This time, the band is learning more than four dozen tunes and will not play the same one twice, he said.
“We’re doing songs from every album, some acoustic stuff, some of the heavy-fitting stuff and deep cuts,” Mazer said. “And that is kind of not only a challenge to myself; I get the inspiration from Phish going out and doing 13 nights at MSG and not repeating a single song, and Pearl Jam doing several nights at stadiums and not repeating songs. To me it’s kind of an inspiration to tackle 50-plus Zeppelin songs just as an appreciation for my home base where my whole musical career started.”