Dweezil himself was no surprise as his virtuosity is universally acclaimed. The rest of the band, however, was stunningly precise and alive. Scheila Gonzalez' sax was on fire and Kurt Morgan on bass was electrifying in the thunderous groove he laid down.
With such a dynamic introduction, Dweezil set the stage by prefacing the night's music with the acknowledgment that this was the 40th anniversary of the 1973 tour and live record "Roxy & Elsewhere" by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The first set of the night was going to be comprised entirely of the set list from that album. The second set would include pieces from many other of Frank's albums like "Absolutely Free," "Apostrophe," Zoot Allures," Sheik Yerbouti" and more.
Dweezil entertained the audience with strange and obscure facts taken from Frank's autobiography and personal reflections of his father and the music his father composed. As fascinating as those stories and tidbits were, what was most memorable was the music and the way it was performed.
I saw Frank Zappa in concert only once; it was October of 1976 in Coral Gables, Florida. This was a period of extensive touring for Frank as it was his only source of income while he was trying to gain the rights to his MGM and Warner Bros. recordings. He eventually did gain control over all of those recordings but only after expensive legal wrangling and lawsuits.
Frank's band in 1976 was a small rock-jazz band which included Terry Bozzio on drums, Patrick O'Hearn on bass, Ray White on vocals and guitar and Eddie Jobson on keyboards and violin. That band could bring the thunder!
But so does Dweezil's band...
Chris Norton (keyboards and vocals) brought the jazzy feel into the arrangement and the evening. Unfortunately, Chris was struggling with a nosebleed and the roadcrew kept him supplied with towels and tissues. Soldiering on, Chris brought his own fury to the exacting music.
Kurt Morgan (bass) and Ryan Brown (drums) formed the rhythm section and were equal to the task of reproducing what Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson had recorded in 1973 or O'Hearn and Bozzio in 1976.
As heretical as it may be to some, Dweezil's band--Zappa Plays Zappa--has something that Frank's bands did not. Zappa Plays Zappa has Scheila Gonzalez. Scheila is a multi-instrumentalist who performs on flute, saxophones, keyboards, duck call, kazoo, you name it... She has been a full-time member of ZPZ since its inception in 2006.
She is also the dancer, the female protagonist, the actress, the humorist and she loves her high heels. That last item almost proved her undoing as she danced front-stage later in the show and stepped on a cable which dropped her into a layout with her legs folded beneath her. She didn't drop a note as Dweezil and Kurt lurched forward to catch her, themselves not missing a note.
After the concert, she admitted that she has done it before but was" not about to give up my high heels."
One of the jazziest moments was on "Echidna's Arf (of You)" with real swing from Ryan and Kurt. Chris' accompaniment was completely in the pocket with them.
From "Don't You Ever Wash that Thing?" to "More Trouble Everyday," Zappa Plays Zappa truly played Zappa as Frank would have wanted it. "More Trouble Everyday" was treated brilliantly. Originally the piece was played by Frank (lead guitar), George Duke (keyboards), Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson--monsters all. It was truly at this moment in the concert that I realized that the music had not lost anything over the many years. Whether passage of time, shifting political and cultural climates or changing band members, Zappa's music was impervious to decay or dating.
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Ryan Brown carries that same drum line with exact reproduction and it is as cool as it was when Chester first did it himself. Indeed, Dweezil's band is every bit as precise and powerful as Frank's legendary bands.
Next up: "Be-bop Tango." Oh, my God... Frank (on the '73 recording) called it "really hard" and Dweezil called it "the hardest piece on the album." With the demanding music, however, was the choreography of Scheila and Ben with the audience participating later. As Scheila and Ben were demonstrating their version of the "Be-bop Tango" behind Dweezil, he was introducing the song.
"Now while you're watching this activity behind me", Dweezil explained, "you may be thinking to yourself, 'Hey! That's looks pretty good. I'd like to do some of that!' or you might be thinking, 'Jesus Christ! I didn't come to see that!' And we will satisfy both of those thoughts for you." The band then leapt right into the demanding piece.
The resulting music is extraordinary. Despite the humor, the dancing and the audience sing-a-long, the structure, complexity and virtuosity is staggering. The piece closes with a quick-break into the "Entertainment Tonight" theme before going into intermission.
Upon the return from the break, Dweezil initiated the second set with "Florentine Pogen" from the 1975 album "One Size Fits All." That was the ninth and last album from Frank with the Mothers of Invention. The final stanza makes lyric reference to "Chester's Gorilla" which is a hilarious reference to a groupie who once grabbed Chester Thompson onstage.
Chris Norton's vocals pushes right into "Teenage Wind" from the "You Are What You Is" album. One of Frank's most frenetic pieces, it contains references to the Grateful Dead and Frank's movie "200 Motels." It is operatic, symphonic and chaotic in the most animated ways as it gets coupled with "Teenage Prostitute" from the "Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch" album.
Dweezil explained that the next piece "The Black Page" began as a [Terry Bozzio] drum solo. He described it as one of his dad's "most iconic pieces." Frank had taken Bozzio's drum solo and wrote the melody and chords changes on top of it. It appeared on the "Zappa in New York" live double-album from 1976. In 2001, Bozzio and Chad Wackerman (another Zappa alumnus) released the video "Solos and Duets" which featured "The Black Page."
The band seamlessly segued into "Flakes" which contains some of Frank's most interesting, even moving, chord changes and vocals. The song first appeared on "Sheik Yerbouti" and mercilessly satirizes/criticizes Californians. Adrian Belew admitted that the song contains a send-up of Bob Dylan's vocal style.
With all that, the ending vocals are almost charming and serves to drop your guard for...
"Broken Hearts Are for Assholes." In a furious transition from the cute to the cutthroat, the instrumental intro is a hard-charge. Another "Sheik Yerbouti" track, it is one of the most rocking of all of Frank's songs with extended spoken lyrics. It is also one of his most hilariously risque songs. Scheila and Ben were forceful and funny.
"Wonderful Wino" was from 1976's "Zoot Allures" album and was a fitting end to the "Flakes-Assholes-Wino" trilogy.
Never before played in concert, "I Come From Nowhere" contains the most sonically bizarre vocals that are "microtonally out of tune," according to Dweezil. Scheila took on the vocal challenge to render live what Frank had done in the studio in this song displaying Frank's affinity for corps-progression.
To sing so fractionally flat is an astonishing achievement. Now, imagine singing that and then falling backwards without dropping a note! This indeed is where Scheila hit the deck and popped back up to the relief of everyone present.
The second set ended with "Cosmik Debris" from the 1974 "Apostrophe" record. It is a soulful blues that ended the set warmly. Kurt Morgan was brilliant yet again; he was innovative and energetic.
The encore was comprised of two songs. "Duke of Prunes" was recorded in 1966 for the "Absolutely Free" album, the second by Frank Zappa. The song came from side one of the LP which was arranged as a sonata. The song was played so lyrically and beautifully that it was hard to imagine it coming from the same time as the Beatles' "Revolver" album.
"Muffin Man" closed the concert. Coming from Frank's 1975 album with Captain Beefheart entitled "Bongo Fury," it is as strange as one would expect with Captain Beefheart on it. Frank called him " a really strange guy" during an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman."
It is a hard-driving groove that featured Ben's gruff vocals. If the musicians weren't worn out before, they had to be after this.
It was three solid hours of the music of Frank Zappa kept fresh and alive by Dweezil Zappa. While images of Aynsley Dunbar, Chester Thompson, George Duke, Eddie Jobson, Jean-Luc Ponty, Terry Bozzio, Patrick O'Hearn, Adrian Belew and all of those in Frank's great bands may have come to mind in fond memory, it was Scheila Gonzalez, Kurt Morgan, Chris Norton, Ben Thomas, Ryan Brown and Dweezil Zappa that owned the night.