Zebra, whose 1983 debut was the fastest-selling album in Atlantic Records history for its first week, treated fans of the ‘80s powerhouse to a scintillating set at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York on Dec. 27. This post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s show warmed the hearts of everybody in the crowd with a performance that featured first-rate vocals, dynamic electric- and acoustic-guitar work and a powerhouse rhythm section.
Randy Jackson (guitar and vocals), Felix Hanemann (bass, vocals and keyboards) and Guy Gelso (drums and vocals) formed the band in 1975 in New Orleans. Jackson and Hanemann, both New Orleans natives, had been in an earlier band called Shepherd’s Bush. Once Gelso, a transplanted Californian, joined up, Shepherd’s Bush had broken up and the trio, along with singer Tim Thorson, formed Maelstrom in late 1974. After Thorson’s brief tenure with the band (three months), Zebra was “born” in early 1975.
Zebra acquired a strong fan base in the New Orleans area, playing Led Zeppelin, Rush and Yes covers. The band then decided to try to make it in the Long Island club scene that was thriving in the mid-‘70s. They played such legendary rock venues as Hammerheads, Speaks and the Mad Hatter, attracting a loyal and fervent fan base that championed the band’s musicianship and original compositions that were mixed in with covers. A demo of “Who’s Behind the Door” was given heavy airplay on WBAB-FM in Long Island and WRNO-FM in New Orleans. This led to the trio securing a multi-album contract from Atlantic records, and their aforementioned self-titled debut, released on March 25, 1983 sold 75,000 copies in its first week, besting Cream and Led Zeppelin’s first-week album sales. The fledgling MTV featured “Tell Me What You Want” and “Who’s Behind the Door” in heavy rotation, and the rest is history.
Opening act Jimmy Kunes (ex-Savoy Brown and Kim Simmond’s band), who was the lead singer of the underrated early ‘70s band “Cactus,” displayed earthy, blues-tinged vocals as part of an acoustic duo. Excellent versions of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and Tommy Bolin’s “Wild Dogs” impressed the crowd. Some opening acts are throwaways that an audience ignores until the band they have come to see takes the stage, but not in this case. Kunes, a rock veteran, showed why he has been in the music business for so long.
Zebra opened the show with “As I Said Before” from their debut. It was immediately apparent that Jackson’s voice and guitar playing were up to the standard that he had established since the band’s rise to prominence in the 1980s. He can sing melodically in standard registers and miraculously traverse falsetto notes and screams that are Robert Plant-like with a twist. “Free,” a rarely played track with a wonderful message from Zebra’s fourth album, was next up. Hanemann’s sturdy bass lines and Gelso’s thunderous drumming were upfront, and show that this trio is the definition of a band, a unit in which each member contributes equally.
Jackson was clearly enjoying himself, exclaiming, “It’s Christmas in New York.” “Wait Until the Summer’s Gone” from “No Tellin’ Lies,” their second release, really got the crowd going. This hard-driving song about the dangers of cocaine abuse featured a scorching, frenetic solo from Jackson that left audience members with mouths agape. “Arabian Nights,” the first track on “Zebra IV,” displayed Jackson’s versatility on guitar as he played Middle Eastern rhythms and lead breaks that perfectly complemented the song’s title. Jackson, who still looks like he did in the 1980s, was clearly in his element, enjoying being on stage and showing why he is one of the most underrated guitarists and singers in classic-rock history. “No Tellin’ Lies,” the title track from the aforementioned second album, was faithful to the original composition, but added even more energy. “He’s Making You the Fool” from “Zebra 3.V” is a pop masterpiece with a wonderful melody and great hooks that has not gotten its just due.
“The La La Song,” from their maiden effort, followed, featuring sonorous harmonies, a slowed-down Jackson solo midsong that provided wonderful dynamics and a Gelso drum solo. This powerful “drum clinic” showed his raw power and expert timing, and underscored the fact that he is a driving force behind the band’s sound. (It is all the more impressive due to the fact that he is cancer survivor.) Hannemann’s rock-steady yeoman bass work and keyboard artistry (even using his feet on pedals) was outstanding on this song and all others.
“Tell Me what You Want,” one of the songs that put the band on the map, followed, with its catchy chorus and eye-opening Jackson solo. As if this was not enough, next up was a sterling acoustic set. Jackson utilized his 12-string guitar masterfully on such gems as “Time” from the under-appreciated “Zebra 3.V,” and the philosophical “Who’s Behind the Door,” (from the debut album) which was dedicated beautifully to the deceased fiancé of a friend.
This dazzling tour de force came to a satisfying close with incredible versions of “One More Chance” and “Take Your Fingers from My Hair,” both from Zebra’s debut, the latter including a “whirling dervish” of a guitar solo from Jackson. His lightning fast triplets and runs up and down the guitar neck were amazing to behold.
After an enthusiastic and drawn-out ovation from the assembled throng, the band left the stage, promising to return and play a Led Zeppelin set. This was particularly special for Zebra fanatics who have followed the band for years and watched them play Led Zeppelin signature songs better than any band on the planet in their early years. First up was a spot-on version of “The Rover,” (from “Physical Graffiti”) followed by “Over the Hills and Far Away,” which featured Jackson’s high-pitched voice doing justice to Robert Plant’s wails on the original version. “Celebration Day,” with its slide-guitar genius and the second album’s “What Is and What Should Never Be,” got the crowd into an even higher fever pitch.
Closing out this two and a ½ hour set were “The Immigrant Song,” (from “Led Zeppelin III”) “Rock and Roll” (from the runes album) and another “Physical Graffiti” treasure, the epic “Kashmir.” Jackson’s solos mirrored Jimmy Page’s on the album versions, while adding his own unique signature to the songs. Zebra had played a stellar Led Zeppelin set with precision and heart. The love Jackson, Hanneman and Gelso have for these timeless rock classics clearly comes through in performance onstage.
Overall, it was a wondrous night to watch a classic-rock band that came out of the 1970s, established itself in the ‘80s and continues to play exhilarating and professional shows. Randy Jackson appeared on Eddie Trunk’s “Friday Night Rocks” radio show on Q-104.3 recently, and told him that the band is working on new material. This is all the better for the loyal core of Zebra fans who come to see their live performances. Zebra added their own version of holiday cheer on this night.
Photo by Michael Guarriello.