Zappa plays Zappa: Sean Diamond got to see an interesting take on the father/son act in Liverpool, which took him on a euphoric tide of nostalgia.
As tribute acts go, this takes some beating. Legendary guitarist/composer/satirist/keyboardist/gig promoter/politician/screenplay writer/producer Frank Zappa‘s son playing his dad’s classic 1974 album Apostrophe in its entirety, accompanied by a seven piece backing band, enough to make a dedicated fan of FZ’s music like myself go moist with excitement! Despite being very much of the love it/hate it variety, the body of work FZ left behind before his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 52 is extraordinary by any standards. As well as producing albums by Alice Cooper and Captain Beefheart (he was responsible for the disconcerting musical soundscapes of the latter’s seminal Trout Mask Replica album), and putting together the famed Rolling Stones-headlined “Rock N Roll Circus” 1968 extravaganza, he was responsible for a dazzlingly prolific gallery of albums which still defy description today.
His late sixties material is generally the most favoured by the critics; some of the early albums he recorded with his original group, The Mothers Of Invention like Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money – the latter a sinister parody of Sergeant Pepper’s – are infused with a savage, anarchic wit, saved from descending into complete chaos by the incredible tightness of the players. He also recorded some amazing Edgar Varese-inspired chamber music around this time (but this is a condensed history; there’s a gig to review, remember) The seventies saw him veering into Jazz Rock, releasing some equally mind blowing recordings (don’t listen to anyone who tells you this is where it all went downhill!), whilst the eighties was probably his most out there musical period of all; turning his attentions to everything from twisted stadium rock, novelty pop hits (‘Valley Girl’ featured lead vocals from his daughter, Moon Unit), and even a Broadway musical in the shape of Thing-Fish (NOT for beginners!!!!!). Highlights of the early nineties include the avant garde classical pieces The Yellow Shark and Civilisation Phaze 3 (his final album), before prostate cancer cruelly took the great man away from the world. For further information on the musical career of Zappa, assuming you’re interested, check out Ben Watson’s amazing tome “The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play“: an exhausting yet fascinating piece of Gonzo essays and critical analysis. Moving on……
As soon as Dweezil and the band take to the stage, you know you’re in for something special. With his long, jet black hair and cheeky, knowing grin, he’s every inch the son of his father. They open with a version of ‘Black Napkins’, a guitar led instrumental from the 1976 album Zoot Allures, and it’s a thing of beauty. Beginning with some exemplary guitar work from Dweezil, a screen situated at the top of the stage projects a clip of Frank playing the song live midway through the performance. It’s an extremely moving moment; to see father and son playing in unison like this is a spine tingling moment, the fact that is his dad is represented in virtual form makes it all the more poignant. Next it’s the Apostrophe album, beginning with the tale of Nanook The Eskimo ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It’. Lead vocalist Ben Thomas does an impressive job in recreating this sorry saga, which concerns an Eskimo named Nanook and his duel with an evil fur trapper, ending with both men blinded by snow cones infested with husky urine, hence the title! Side one of this album is a concept piece of sorts; loosely concerning a dream of Zappa’s, in which he meets all manner of strange characters and attends strange events, including ‘St.Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast’. The highlight of this particular section is an outstanding rendition of ‘Cosmik Debris’, which features some brilliant vocals from sax/flute/keyboard player Scheila Gonzalez.
Other highlights lifted from the Apostrophe album include a wonderfully intense take on the album’s instrumental title track; a soulful rendering of the album’s “serious” track, ‘Uncle Remus’, which tackles the issue of middle class American racism, and the album’s awesome closer ‘Stinkfoot’, a remarkable melting pot of scatological humour, stinging guitar playing and doo-wop melodies. Zappa has always had a huge following in Liverpool, and perhaps it’s the sense of humour that everybody here can relate to, so needless to say, the album goes down a storm. And that’s just for starters!
A highly energised ‘City Of Tiny Lites’, taken from the Sheik Yerbouti album, gets the crowd up and dancing; Dweezil remarks that we “seem to be in a good mood tonight.” Another great moment comes in the form of ‘Chunga’s Revenge’, the instrumental title track of one of Zappa’s more underrated albums. Joe Travers, the band’s drummer, let’s rip with a jaw dropping solo which left me open mouthed. This cat can play, believe me, daddio! Happily, the 1975 album One Size Fits All, which many fans consider Zappa’s best, and which is certainly one of my favourites, is represented in the form of ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘Pojama People’. The former is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written; an epic psychedelic Jazz Rock odyssey which always seems to reveal new sounds, new textures, inner meanings, no matter how many times you listen to it. The version played out tonight is truly sublime: Pete Griffin’s bass guitar dipping and flowing into Chris Norton’s spellbinding keyboard noises, and dancing merrily with Billy Hulting’s percussion, all of which seem to become one with the drums, guitar and flute. Magical stuff. The latter is a sneering, slyly humorous swipe at the seventies fashionistas of the time, which features some more spellbinding guitar work from Dweezil, an astonishing guitar player in his own right, despite the inevitable comparisons people will draw with his father.
Other highlights (there are so many!), include a transcendent ‘Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy’, taken from Bongo Fury, his live collaboration with Beefheart, an amusingly irreverent ‘Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?’, and the startlingly raucous, balls out rock assault of ‘Fifty-Fifty’, with guest vocalist Pete Jones perfectly replicating Ricky Lancelotti’s larynx shredding original vocal; a seemingly impossible task expertly brought to life by this deranged, hyperactive lunatic of a man, a star in the making! The show closes with a moody, foreboding take on the classical piece ‘Rollo'”, a track which Dweezil claims he felt apprehensive about playing live, such is it’s complexity, but which sounds absolutely exquisite to these ears.
The cries for “more” at this point are deafening, and “more” we damn well get! The encore opens with ‘Dancin’ Fool’ , one of Zappa’s poppier moments; it’s a maddeningly catchy rock/pop anthem which the crowd down the front go ballistic to. Ben Thomas decides to take advantage of the situation by inviting selected members of the audience up on the stage to dance; cue a mini stage invasion of Zappa fans dancing like loons! Particularly amusing is a bloke clad in an “I LOVE NY” t-shirt and white sunglasses dancing like Bez away from the rest of the throng, stood alone at the far right side of the stage entrenched in the music. After a brief dancing lesson and a joke chat-up with a female memeber of the audience, Messrs Thomas and Zappa instruct the assemblage to leave the stage, with Dweezil telling them they were “fantastic.” It’s a brilliant moment, a reminder of Frank’s showmanship and commitment to entertaining the fans to the max. To finish things off, we get a frenetic ‘Baby Snakes’ and a climatic “Muffin Man”, which again features some amazing projected footage of FZ in action. It’s another hairs-standing-on-back-of-neck moment, Dweezil and Jamie Kime’s fist shakingly mean guitar lines fill the venue like a flurry of flies about to enter a cobweb, with Frank looking on approvingly.
Before they leave, Dweezil tells us what a pleasure it’s been to play in Liverpool; it’s a city that holds a special kind of resonance with him, particularly as his father was good friends with all The Beatles. The band bow, the audience cheer. The people in the seats (myself included), give the band a standing ovation. We are played out to the haunting strains of “Sofa No.1” from One Size Fits All, one of FZ’s most melodic, heartfelt pieces, and a perfect track to leave the venue to. A great show which, if anything, surpassed my expectations, and then some, Zappa Plays Zappa is essential viewing. Recommended to hardcore Zappaphiles (and newcomers) everywhere, even the most ardent non-zappa fan may be converted after seeing this! Well, maybe not, but I for one am determined to catch this show again. Fabulous stuff, as close as you’re ever gonna get to the real thing. Long Live Zappa!
You can catch Dweezil on the following tour dates:
November 27th 2011- Leicester, De Montfort Hall
November 28th 2011- Oxford, New Theatre
November 29th 2011- London, Barbican
November 30th 2011- Bristol, Colston Hall
December 1st 2011- Brighton, Dome