By John Paul Tancredi
The first time I ever heard of Dread Zeppelin was in late 1989. I was attending the monthly record swap meet in Pasadena, California, when my friend and I came across two guys sitting at a table with some 7- inch singles in front of them. The record, pressed on blue vinyl, featured "The Immigrant Song" backed with "Hey, Hey, What Can I Do." The artist's name was Dread Zeppelin.
As an avid Led Zeppelin fan, I was slightly intrigued, but not enough to purchase the record. Nevertheless, I grabbed one of their flyers and stuck it in my record bag. It wasn't until the next month that I found the flyer in my bag and decided to read about the band. I was further intrigued by the band's description: "Led Zeppelin songs done reggae style with an Elvis impersonator out front." Cool! I wanted to buy the single. Unfortunately, those two guys weren't at the swap meet the next time around. Several weeks later, I got a phone call from my swap meet friend. He had just picked up a copy of "Un- led-Ed", Dread Zeppelin's debut CD. "You gotta get it" was all he could say.
The next day, I proudly purchased "Un-led-Ed" for myself. Actually, I didn't know what I was going to hear. I initially expected a novelty record, but the track listing seemed too legitimate for that. I popped in the CD and "Black Dog" blew me away. I was hooked from the start.
This was hardly a novelty band...these guys were real musicians! Tortelvis had the Elvis voice down and the tight arrangements effectively blended the reggae and Zeppelin riffs. "Heartbreaker (At the End of Lonely Street)" was one of the best things I ever heard!
I immediately wanted to see the band in concert. I started scanning the newspaper's entertainment section every Sunday, looking for local concert dates. I finally got my chance at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. My friend and I waited through two other bands with anticipation. Then, Dread hit the stage and Tortelvis appeared! The concert was a lot of fun and full of great music. Carl Jah was phenomenal on guitar, nailing the Zeppelin riffs with precision; Ed Zeppelin was great on percussion and vocals and did a back flip near the end of the show; "Put-Mon" was underdressed for the occasion; Fresh Cheese (and Cheese?) kept the beat going; and Jah Paul Jo was the master of the reggae groove. And, of course, there was Tortelvis. He looked, sounded, and acted just like the real thing.
The band played almost all of "Un-led-Ed" and a few unreleased tunes, no doubt preview selections from the upcoming second album. For a longtime Led Zeppelin fan who never got to see them in concert, it was a real treat to hear their songs performed live by Dread. If I hadn't become a fan from hearing the CD, I was certainly in it for the long haul now.
For the next couple of years, I saw Dread Zeppelin in concert as often as I could. The shows were always entertaining and the music was hot.
Eventually, I subscribed to "Dread Talk" and became an official fan club member. I purchased the t-shirts, videos, vinyl rarities, anything they offered. In the meantime, "5,000,000*" was released. It was more of the same great material, highlighted by some original songs and a memorable cover of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up." By this time, everyone was "Doin' The Claw."
For whatever reason during those early years, I often felt that Dread Zeppelin was a short-term proposition. Not that I doubted their staying power from a creative standpoint, but they were in fact a rock & roll band. By virtue of this, they were inherently susceptible to all of the trappings of the business.
In 1992, my fears were realized to an extent. Although they didn't break up, big changes came with the new studio album: Tortelvis and Ed were out, Gary B.I.B.B. (actually Butt-Boy) and Rasta Li-Mon (producer extraordinaire) were in. "It's Not Unusual" featured disco songs. I hated disco. I read the track listing in disbelief. I didn't understand what was happening. Sure, I was a Dread Zeppelin fan, but this was too much to ask. I didn't buy the CD. For me, Dread Zeppelin ceased to exist at that point.
My utter disdain for disco music kept me from trying the new CD and I thought their run was over. To this day, I still don't particularly like "It's Not Unusual" (I've heard it, but don't own it), but, in retrospect, I admire the band for trying something new after losing two key members.
Fortunately, there was a "reunion" in 1993 as Tort and Ed returned for the "Hot & Spicy Beanburger" CD and tour. After nearly two years of not seeing Dread in concert, I got my fix in a big way in 1993 and 1994.
The magic was still there.
My all-time favorite Dread Zeppelin show took place in September 1994 at The Strand in Redondo Beach. I was confused at first because Carl Jah wasn't there, but the show still rocked. Butt-Boy played lead guitar and some strange-looking new guy was on bass. The Strand had tables set up just to the side of the stage and my vantage point that night was incredible...literally on the stage right next to the band. This was Dread Zeppelin up close and personal... in 3D! From only a few feet away, I experienced all of my best Dread concert memories in one evening. Tortelvis got on my case for not "doin' the claw", Ed chatted with me and my friends between songs, and we got an up-close look at the interplay between Tort and Charlie Haj.
And, through it all, Jah Paul Jo was up there having a good time, playing with the same passion as always. Every song was a great experience. It all ended with "Stairway To Heaven"..."Ladies and Gentlemen, Tortelvis has left the building!" I walked out in awe of what I had just witnessed.
A few weeks after The Strand concert, I learned from "Dread Talk" that both Carl Jah and Ed Zeppelin had left the band. They had been replaced by Ed's twin brother, Fernandez, and Derf Nasna-Haj on bass. In early 1995, I looked forward to the release of "No Quarter Pounder" and planned on attending more Dread shows. Despite the departures of Carl and Ed, I was loyal to Jah Paul Jo. From the beginning, I sensed that it was his band and knew he was the "man behind the music".
In March, I caught the boys at the Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica. I hadn't seen them since The Strand concert and the set featured several new songs from the unreleased new CD. Despite being a bit rough around the edges, the show was still fun. I sang along to the chorus of "Ramble On" and was thrilled to finally see Dread perform my favorite Led Zeppelin song. The next month, Dread again played locally. I couldn't make it to the show, but a friend of mine attended and filled me in afterwards. The big news was the noticeable absence of Jah Paul Jo. Apparently, they played with only one guitarist and the resulting sound wasn't up to par. "It sucked" was my friend's in depth review. I wondered what was up. Had Jah Paul left the band or was this just a one-time absence?
My friend went to another Dread show a few weeks later and the news was the same...no Jo. I finally sent a letter to Birdcage and JPJ wrote back and confirmed my suspicions: he had indeed left the band. The way Jah Paul explained it, Dread had fallen victim to the type of personality/ego conflicts they always promised to avoid. It was a big loss; the band went on, but the creative force was missing.
With his letter, Jah Paul graciously sent me a copy of "No Quarter Pounder." It was typically wonderful Dread, full of all the great sounds that made the band great. On the other hand, Dread's new "official fan club" charged me fifteen bucks for "The Fun Sessions," a Jah Paul-less collection of rock & roll cover tunes (featuring no Led Zeppelin songs!). I didn't like what I heard. It wasn't a bad disc, but, to me, it wasn't Dread Zeppelin.
The contrast between "No Quarter Pounder" and "The Fun Sessions" speaks for itself. In the two years since Jah Paul Jo's departure, I haven't attended a Dread Zeppelin concert and have no desire to do so. I've heard from longtime fans that the shows aren't as good as the old days. Jah Paul's rhythm guitar spot remains unfilled and the live sound continues to suffer. For me, it's a tribute to the great visionary that was Jah Paul Jo. Without him and Rasta Li-Mon, we would have never had all those great Dread Zeppelin discs (by the way, Jah Paul told me that he was one of those guys at the table at the Pasadena swap meet way back when!)
I miss the days of the "classic Dread" lineup, but at least I have all the CDs and videos to take me back. If you're a newer Dread fan who came aboard after JPJo's departure, you missed a great ride. Go ahead and enjoy the "bogus Dread" if you must, but do yourself a favor and listen to the old stuff. Check out the classic videos, too. That was the real Dread Zeppelin. That was my band!
John Paul Tancredi
Los Angeles, California
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