Last month the surviving members of Led Zeppelin went to Washington to receive laurels from the powerful at the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. The most memorable moment, by far, came at the end of the event, when drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, put on a bowler hat like the one his father used to wear and joined Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart for a beautifully arranged and very moving rendition of “Stairway to Heaven.”
It was the grand finale of an evening of entertainment. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones sat watching from the balcony (alongside the other honorees and President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle) as a series of performers paid tribute to the legendary rock band. The full 20-minute segment included an introduction by comedic actor Jack Black (who called Led Zeppelin “the best band ever”) followed by tribute performances from the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz. But the scene that really brought down the house came at the end, when the young Bonham joined the Wilson sisters to perform Led Zeppelin’s signature song.
Ann Wilson’s singing was right on the mark. Under the most intimidating conditions, she gave a beautiful and faultless performance. “It was our honor to be asked to do it before an audience like that,” Wilson wrote afterward on the Heart Web site. “My main goal though was to please Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones…especially Plant, since all these many years he has taught me so much about singing from the soul and has given me such a pleasure in his lyrics. What a high that night was. Never to be forgotten!”
Guitarist Shane Fontayne did an admirable job recreating Page’s famous solo at the climax of “Stairway to Heaven.” But the most stirring moment came when a heavenly choir–all wearing bowler hats to invoke the presence of the departed Bonham–joined Wilson in singing the final lines of the song. Looking down from the balcony, the surviving band members were visibly moved. Tears welled up in Plant’s eyes. It was a fitting tribute to a great band, and proof that rock and roll actually can–in some hands, anyway–age gracefully.