Ian D. Robinson. Feb 2012.
It’s a freezing winter night in Kobe, snow is forecast and it feels as if it’s about to hit. A friend and I are wandering the back streets of Sannomiya, the city’s entertainment district crammed with hundreds of tiny bars and eateries, looking for somewhere to have a beer. It’s not that I’m particularly in need of a drink, I just want to get out of the cold for a while. A small sign on the wall says ‘Bar, 70’s Rock Music’. Sounds good enough, but we don’t even make it to the door.
On the stairs we pass a large-ish Japanese man in a long black leather coat and long-ish dank hair. He asks if we’re heading to the bar and tells us it won’t open til later, it turns out he’s Sato, the bar’s owner and he’s on his way to a nearby live venue to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band, he invites us to go and says he can get us in for free.
Chicken George, the venue, has been around since 1980, it was destroyed in the Kobe earthquake of 95 but rebuilt again and is typical of Japan’s very active live music scene. In any Japanese city on any weekend you can hear live music of any genre from rockabilly to reggae, classical guitar to Congonese bongo drummers and all the way back again.
Inside is a dark cavern of industrial concrete filled with people and cigarette smoke, we arrive just as the warm up act finishes their set. There is an orderly rush to the bar as the Japanese crowd has waited politely for the act to end before they head up to get another drink. We get plastic cups of beer and Sato finds us a table right in front of the speakers.
“Good place?” He asks and points to the stack of Marshall amps.
“Oh, yeah… great…”
The main act begins, Let’s Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Chang takes the stage to perform in introductory guitar solo, in fact he starts by playing his Les Paul with a violin bow. I can’t help but think of Spinal Tap. The drummer, Bonzo Kitahara, takes his seat amid his kit with kettle drums and gongs, he looks the part complete with 70’s mo and for most of the set he looks as bored as Charlie Watts. He’s joined by bassist John G. Saito and finally lead vocalist and weekend rock god Isamu Plant strides onto his realm.
Isamu is the real deal, long wavy, almost Rick James, style hair, open shirt and silver chains, high heeled boots and tight jeans for the ladies. He does a damn good Robert Plant too, eyes closed as he screams into the mike on ‘Whole Lotta Love’, his hands in the air with perfectly replicated mannerisms, he’s studied hard and has got his hero down pat, there’s nothing fake about this impersonator. The band is tight and even the vocals are good, not too much of the impossible-not-to-find-amusing Japanese accent when they sing lock n loll. Apart from the oriental faces I’m watching a young Led Zeppelin, just perhaps when Led Zeppelin were not so young.
The crowd is exclusively locals but not only made up of the aging rockers one might expect. Right in front of the stage clapping his hands in time to Black Dog is a granddad who must have been getting on when Zep were in their heyday and behind us is a group of kids who would probably be in bed by now if this had been a school night. Next to me I notice Sato has fallen asleep during The Rain Song, lulled to the land of nod by the rock ballad theme of his youth. As for me my ears are screaming in complaint, I haven’t been this close to such loud rock since my 20s.
During guitar changes Isamu waves to people in the crowd he knows, it seems he has a regular following and talks about the sushi restaurant he runs somewhere in the city, his day job when he’s not worshipping at the altar of rock n roll. Jimmy walks to the front of the stage wearing a double necked guitar and Isamu announces their final song, it’s what everyone has been waiting in anticipation for, “This is a song of hope” he tells us, the crowd gets to their feet cheering and we all start climbing that Stairway to Heaven, winding down that road and meeting that lady we all know, Isamu throws his head back and crescendos into the microphone, shinning white light as everything turns to gold.
Let’s Zeppelin’s set ends and the band lines the edge of the stage arm in arm bowing to the crowd which bellows for more. Later at home I struggle to get to sleep despite the not-sure-how-many beers I’ve had, that heavy metallic ringing in my ears I haven’t had for yonks, yep, it’d been a long time since I’d rock n rolled.