There are tribute bands and tribute shows, but every once in a while something special comes along that makes us remember what all the fuss was about in the first place. For 15 years, New York music entrepreneur Michael Dorf has been producing annual benefit shows at Carnegie Hall, and this year’s installment, “The Music of Led Zeppelin,” features a long list of talented musicians taking on one of rock’s most iconic supergroups.

The big show at the Stern Auditorium is tonight, but part of the tradition includes a rehearsal the night before at City Winery, Dorf’s downtown music emporium. Jamming so much sonic firepower into a small venue makes for a more intimate experience, and the Tuesday night show was a high-energy affair that primed audience members planning to attend the main performance.

Among the beneficiaries of Dorf’s annual events are The Orchestra Now, a Bard College outreach program for New York area high school students. Violinists and cellists from the program joined the house band (Tony Shanahan on bass, Andy York and Jackie Greene on guitars, Andy Burton on keys, Dennis Diken on drums) to open the show with a powerful cover of “Kashmir” that left no doubt these guys were for real. On vocals, Shannon Conley of Lez Zeppelin not only delivers in the highest registers but has mastered Robert Plant’s moves and stage presence to an uncanny degree.

Next up was Son Little on acoustic guitar for “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” followed by Matthew Sweet performing “Dancing Days.” Among the evening’s many highlights was J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. taking on one of Zep’s prettiest songs, “Tangerine.” Conley returned for a rousing “Misty Mountain Hop” and punk-blues guitarist Ayron Jones provided proper shredding on “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”

Allowing the house band a break, Living Colour took the stage, with frontman Corey Glover admitting they had no idea what they were doing before absolutely crushing “Rock n Roll” to get the house on its feet. The guitar and drums duo London Souls maintained the energy on “Bring It On Home” before the house band returned with Joseph Arthur on vocals for “Ramble On.”

The remainder of the show featured Conley on vocals moving from “Trampled Underfoot” to “The Ocean” before closing the set with “Whole Lotta Love.” The band quickly returned, joined by Ayron Jones and London Souls guitarist Tash Neal for “Communication Breakdown.”

Pictures from the rehearsal show are in the gallery above. Tonight’s show at Carnegie Hall includes additional performers such as Bettye LaVette, Joe Russo’s “Bustle In Your Hedgerow” project, moe., Tom Hamilton and Holly Bowling, O.A.R. and The Zombies. Dorf’s previous benefits have featured the music of Bowie, Paul Simon and Prince, and tonight’s show is certain to build on the tradition. Tickets are still available, don’t let the weather scare you off.

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words and photos by Lou Montesano