For most accomplished musicians, reflecting on their high-school band is a mixture of self-deprecating humor and appreciation for the right of passage that is playing in a rudimentary, not-so-tight ensemble of hope, excitement and determination.
But for two local musicians whose paths have been fruitful, reconvening one of their earliest projects has become a yearly source of joy and entertainment for them and for local music fans.
Singer-songwriter Mike Dougherty and guitarist Justin Mazer will lead their longtime Led Zeppelin tribute, Misty Mountain, for two shows on Dec. 22 and 23 at the River Street Jazz Cafe in Plains Township. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the band’s first performance, they’ve invited a full lineup of special guests to play with them.
On the first night, the pair will be joined by Leftover Salmon keyboard player Erik Deutsch, Guster drummer David Butler and Marco Benevento bass player Karina Rykman. For the second performance, they’ll be accompanied by local pros A.J. Jump and Matt Gabriel with special guests Aaron Fink and Dustin Douglas expected add to the musicianship.
Mazer and Dougherty formed Misty Mountain when they were still students at Lake-Lehman Senior High School.
“The first show we did … I just got my license,” Mazer said during a recent phone interview. “I think I was a junior.”
The pair, Mazer said, had been playing in a band that covered a lot of Zeppelin tunes when Jazz Cafe promoter Tom Moran helped them get the tribute project off the ground.
“We got the word (the gig) was happening, and we had three months to prepare,” Mazer said. “We put a great deal of effort in that summer. We got together and played the songs every day. That was my first and only show there in 10 years of playing that got an official sell out.”
Now a reputable instrumentalist, Mazer toured this year with Massachusetts songwriter Ryan Montbleau. His instrumental trio, Starbird, which also features York-based drummer Al Smith and Cabinet bass player Dylan Skursky, gigged throughout the East Coast and South this fall, playing as a three-piece and backing songwriter Brad Parsons; and his experimental outfit, Gatos Blancos, which adds Cabinet’s Patrick “Pappy” Biondo and Mike Gordon Band’s John Kimock to the Starbird trio, has plans for 2018.
Dougherty, a singer-songwriter with powerful vocal ability that lends itself to multiple genres, has emerged as a modern soul artist, releasing his debut album, “Rhythm Of Our Hearts” in 2013. He currently performs a combination of his originals and funk, soul and R&B standards solo and in the Mike Dougherty Band, and he is working on a solo acoustic album.
But for these two developing artists, reconnecting with their roots is an annual exercise.
“Basically, for Mike Dougherty and I, all roads lead back to the River Street Jazz Cafe and playing Led Zeppelin,” Mazer said. “We’ve made it a point to do that show at least once a year. We got into the routine of doing that right around the Christmas weekend.”
Nostalgia, Mazer said, is paramount during the yearly performances.
“It’s the one show a year where Mike and I still get together and connect and coordinate stuff,” he said. “We’ve gone our separate ways over the years, but there’s always one anchor show where we can make something happen. It’s great around the holidays, because everyone is home for the holidays and I get to see people who have supported me over the years. I like to think of it as throwing a party for friends and family and home fans on my home turf.”
Mazer said he and Dougherty put extra attention on the upcoming shows to make sure they are special. Playing for two nights, he expects to have time to do an extended soundcheck and get all the band’s levels dialed in.
“We’ve got two different lineups,” Mazer noted. “The first night is an all-star band with some of my favorite musicians and friends from New York City bands. The second night is more of a hometown throwdown with local friends who are great musicians. We seem to be covering all ends of the spectrum with the two night run.”
And with all of the talent scheduled to make these Misty Mountain performances unique and improvisational, it’ll be Dougherty taking on his traditional role as frontman for the hometown crowd, reprising his homage to one of the greatest singers in rock ‘n’ roll history.
“In general, Mike’s a great musician all around,” Mazer said. “He can play a lot of instruments. He’s a great songwriter. He covers a lot of ground with his skill set. From day one with the Zeppelin thing, we do our own thing with it. Mike does a great job with superimposing his voice into Zeppelin songs while honoring the classic parts and doing a great job with the Robert Plant territory.”
Misty Mountain intends to perform 50 songs over their two-night residency, and they plan to not repeat a single tune.