There are two myths that have been perpetuated since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll: People in cover bands aren’t legitimate musicians, and girls can’t rock as hard as the boys. So when Steph Paynes decided to start a Led Zeppelin tribute band in 2004 called Lez Zeppelin, it’s safe to say that she experienced a few dissenters.

“If you’re going to do it and you’re going to be women doing it, you’d better get it together,” Paynes said, who is the group’s guitarist. “I don’t want to add to the myth that women can’t play — which is false, and if I were to go out there with a band that half-assed it, I’d be doing everyone a disservice. If you’re going to do it, you’re almost going to have to do it better because everyone’s so cynical.”

Years later and with a few nationwide tours, appearances on TV networks such as the BBC and MTV and — perhaps most importantly — a seal of approval from Led Zeppelin’s guitar god, Jimmy Page, Paynes and company have proven to the critics that they are more than just a gimmick.

One of the reasons behind the New York City-based band’s success is that since its start, the group (which has had about three major lineup changes) has been hesitant to follow the traditional course of tribute bands and dive into cover-band culture.

“[Lez Zeppelin] was just [for] fun because I love the music so much,” Paynes said, “but then I realized, ‘My God, there’s this whole scene and I’m supposed to be in this scene,’ and I made a very conscious decision early on because I didn’t like the vibe of it and I didn’t consider what I was doing to be any sort of tribute band. … I decided to just book my band as if it were an original band and not to sign up with tribute band agents or do any of that or play those clubs or play with other tribute bands.”

The fact that everyone in it is female also has a lot to do with why Paynes doesn’t see the group as a regular tribute band. The musicians can’t really impersonate anyone — Shannon Conley is never going to pass for Led Zep singer Robert Plant — and while there is still a certain amount of pageantry in Lez Zeppelin (dragon suits included) the girls honors their idols by focusing on the music.

“If you’re a classical musician trying to take a piece of well-known music and interpret it, that’s really what we’re doing,” Paynes said. “We’re playing a very classical canon in rock ‘n’ roll and we’re bringing our own self to it, and the energy and the power that I feel that Led Zeppelin was about. We do try to capture that; it’s sort of a natural thing after awhile, when you study it this much.”

As pupils of Zeppelin, the group has been thorough in its quest to embody the sound and atmosphere of its namesake. The musicians have employed a multi-faceted approach, from procuring only vintage gear for their performances to requiring sometimes high levels of commitment from some of the group’s musicians.

Bass player Megan Thomas, for example, learned to play mandolin and synthesizers for specific songs. Paynes not only had to master the technical, blues-based riffs of one of the world’s legendary guitarists, but she also had to figure out how to work Page’s signature tool: the bow.

“You need to hit it in the right place,” she said. “It’s almost like playing tennis.”

In terms of their textbook, Paynes and her group draw from Led Zeppelin’s live shows, which were filled with extended versions of songs and long bouts of improvisation, more than the group’s studio releases.

And if you’re wondering about their suggestive name, don’t bother to ask because Paynes offers no answers. As to why she leaves it shrouded in secrecy, like everything else that has to do with the band, she’s taken a few notes from the original.

“Led Zeppelin always did that,” she said. “There was a lot of mystery surrounding that band, nobody knew for sure what was going on, and I think that adds to the excitement of a rock band. Too much is told now; I don’t want to know everyone’s details. … It sort of brings people down to the most banal level. There’s no imagination.”

» State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; Fri. July 16, 9 p.m., $19; 703-237-0300.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photos by Kyra Kverno