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First let me explain that I’m a fan of Frank Zappa. Not a crazy fan of Frank Zappa, mind you. I only have about forty of his albums. And believe me, that’s not even half of what’s out there. (If you collect bootlegs…oy vey!)
I must admit that I approached the concert with some trepidation. Zappa wrote some of the most invidiously complicated and challenging music in “rock” – even his “dumb” songs are incredibly difficult to play. Would the junior Zappas be able to bring out Frank’s rigorous demands for perfection and musicianship from a fresh set of young performers, I wondered. I shuddered at the idea that the music would be dumbed down, its kinks smoothed out to facilitate a rather hastily put-together tour.
The staging was rock’n’roll simple: a large riser for the stationary instruments like drums and keyboards and mic stands set out for the roving axe-wielders. Stage right was a large drum kit that was hard not to gaze at in rapt awe. Consisting of three bass drums (“tuned a fifth note apart,” my friend informed me – I think), a variety of toms and an eccentric metal bar covered with a rainbow of cymbals that twisted snake-like over the drum kit. The drum set sat there throughout the show, like the proverbial elephant in the room – uncommented on, but so very, very there.
Apparently some concerts had a video screen playing footage of Zappa performing “Montana”. The omission at the QE was perhaps due to the late arrival of the gear, which necessitated a late soundcheck and a later start. “A bridge-related problem,” Dweezil explained. No apologies were needed though, as a typically late Vancouver audience was still filing into the venue twenty minutes after the projected start time. The audience was pretty much what I expected: hippie throwbacks from the last century and reconstituted hippies who cut off the old grey hair (which ain’t what it used to be) – many had probably seen Zappa himself perform at one of his many concerts here in Vancouver (in fact, Zappa had performed at the Queen E in 1984. There was a youngish crowd too, who, like me, had migrated to Zappa’s music in our restless flight from the boring mainstream.
Sweeping all my misgivings aside, the show opened with a Zappa-esque improvisation, Dweezil, in his father’s role as conductor, leading the band with a series of hand gestures as they grunted and squawked at his command before rolling into “Andy” – one of those complicated Zappa pieces that would test the mettle of any musician. Zappa loved a tight band and encouraged a togetherness that would have shamed Siamese twins. As he toured through the Seventies, his songs became aural steeplechases. His musicians chasing each other through lurching octave leaps, sudden starts and stops, bizarre time signatures, mind-bending polyrhythms and all his other moustachioed trademarks. The musicians chosen by Dweezil handled the enormous challenge with aplomb.
Dweezil has stated in interviews that he chose to use younger musicians to help younger members of the audience connect to the music, so it seemed attainable rather than an inaccessible occult science practiced by paunchy old men with pony tails and awesome chops. The band (Joe Travers on drums, Pete Griffin on bass, Aaron Arntz on keyboards, trumpet & vocals, Scheila Gonzales on saxophone, flute, trumpet, keyboards & vocals, Billy Hulting on percussion and Jamie Kime on rhythm guitar) were more that up to the challenge. And their youth gave them an exuberance that a collection of seasoned old pros would have lacked. Fittingly, Dweezil did play Zappa, acting as compère, guiding the band, doing a little singing and playing the majority of the lead guitar.
Musically, the show was very much the way Zappa might program a live show: most of the songs were from the mid- to late-Seventies (“Pygmy Twylyte”, “Cheepnis” “Inca Roads” “Florentine Pogen”) with a couple of Sixties classics thrown in (“Call Any Vegetable”, “Who Are the Brain Police?” “The Idiot Bastard Son”), and even then they mostly followed arrangements Zappa used in the Seventies. You almost felt like you were live at the Roxy (and elsewhere).
Of the guest performers, Napoleon Murphy Brock was the most ubiquitous, playing with the band through the entire show. An accomplished saxophonist, flautist and one helluva singer, Brock is also a master showman (=ham) whose wild gesticulations and even wilder dancing gave the audience a focal point as the band tackled Zappa père’s massive legacy. He gave you a connection to the early seventies bands which can be heard to such great effect in the Helsinki concert (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 2). About halfway through the show, the purpose of the gi-normous drum kit became apparent when one-time Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio emerged and crawled into the drum kit like an astronaut entering a space capsule. Amusingly, the first two songs (“I’m So Cute” and “Trying to Grow a Chin”) were punkish thrashers that could have been played on a toy drum kit, let alone on Bozzio’s history of the drums museum. After a zesty “Punky’s Whips”, the full range of the drum set was reached on the amazingly intricate “The Black Page Part One”, a percussive piece that is not a drum solo, but a fully composed work that nods heavily to one of Zappa’s heroes, composer Edgar Varèse. Joining the band for “The Black Page Part Two”, was guitar ace Steve Vai who demonstrated why he became “stunt guitarist” for Zappa in the eighties. His complete mastery of all the tricks of modern guitarists, his use of sustain, his use of the whammy bar are mind-blowing. With Vai, the band ran through “Regyptian Strut,” “Peaches En Regalia,” “Montana” (with he and Dweezil playing dual, duelling guitars), “Village of the Sun” and “Zombie Wolf”, where Vai attempted to sonically burn down the QE Theatre. The concert ended with a medley of “Oh No”, “Orange County Lumber Truck” (or maybe “Son of Orange County”) and “More Trouble Every Day” with Vai and Bozzio re-joining the band on stage before ending the show with a burning “A Token of My Extreme”.
The show was a real testament to the Zappa fils love for their father and their admiration for his achievements. It is also a continuation of Zappa’s final projects with the Ensemble Modern as his great compositional legacy is carried on by his children. At the end of the concert, Dweezil said they hoped to make it a yearly event. I will most certainly be there.
My favourite Zappa record: Burnt Weeny Sandwich
**Warning: There were drum solos during the show (although apparently some people enjoy these things).