Heart’s “Stairway to Heaven” hits ITunes (review) It’s rare when a cover version can stand toe to toe with its original. But it’s nothing short of extraordinary when that song happens to be “Stairway to Heaven,” the most hallowed of all classic rock tracks. That’s exactly what Ann & Nancy Wilson accomplished during the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Led Zeppelin. The overwhelmingly positive response and 4 1/2 million views on You Tube has prompted the band to make their rendition available on Itunes as a single. The version floating around the Internet is shorter - CBS edited it for television; this is their complete take of the song.
The live performance opens with Nancy Wilson’s acoustic guitar - picking out the notes that every person who ever picked up the instrument has tried to mimic. Her playing is supple, yet she offers enough subtle flair that it doesn’t come off as a note-for-note copy. Next comes sister Ann, her voice warm, resonating in the low register of the early verses of the song. She imparts a yearning that’s missing from the original. It’s almost as if she’s singing “Over the Rainbow” - and that would make sense, since both sisters looked up to Led Zeppelin as they were just starting out as musicians.
As the song builds, strings enter, then a gospel choir - elements that should ruin this legendary song, but are executed perfectly, instead amping the intensity. Jason Bonham, son of the late Zep drummer John Bonham, comes crashing in as the track picks up pace. The guitar solo is melodic and reverent - again, adding just enough to make it unique. And, it’s nowhere near as sloppy Jimmy Page plays it now.
As the song nears the dizzying climax, Ann Wilson doesn’t back down an inch. Over 40 years of singing in a rock band and she can still nail every high note. She pulls off the “there walks a LADY we all know” where most would’ve gone with something in a lower register. The choir gets louder, so do the strings, and horns appear. Ann tears her vocal chords up with “to be a rock and not to roll” - holding out that last word for eight seconds, wringing it until there’s absolutely nothing left. As she sings the famous acapella coda “and she’s buying a stairway / to heaven” - the choir swells, holding that final note for a spine-tingling finale.
Somehow only paying 99 cents for this dazzling performance doesn’t seem right. It’s worth so much more. Heart was able to breathe new life into the most over-played song in the Led Zeppelin oeuvre. I’ve watched it at least two dozen times and it still gives me chills each and every time. Phenomenal. --Tony Peters