06/25/06

Zappa Plays Zappa

A sense of both exhilarating real time triumph and passionate nostalgia washed over the project called “Zappa Plays Zappa,” one of the season’s most exciting touring events. This is the project for which Frank’s son Dweezil (pictured), after soul-searching and much woodshedding on his part, assembled a crack unit of technically adroit players for a program of Zappa’s notoriously challenging tunes.

The band had already played Europe and the East Coast and proven its roadworthiness before this sold-out “homecoming” concert at Los Angeles’ Wiltern. By serendipitous circumstance, by the time the “Zappa Plays Zappa” medicine show arrived in Frank Zappa’s hometown, audiences had already also thronged to another authentic Zappa tribute project. The Grande Mothers, featuring veteran Mothers of Invention Napoleon Murphy Brock, Don Preston and Roy Estrada gave a commanding presentation of Zappa’s gnarly songbook at the REDCAT Theater in April. Suddenly, Frank Zappa’s music had gone public again, and in fine fettle—though, of course, missing the critical element of the genius himself.

Though loosely connected to the “rock” world, it is clearer now than ever that Zappa’s music is “beyond category”—especially the intricate, jazz-infused material from the early to mid-‘70s, from which much of this set was comprised. To hear tautly delivered tunes like “Inca Roads,” “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” the classic “Montana” and the intense instrumental “Echidna’s Arf” in the bracing clarity of a live arena was a memorable experience, and another reminder that this music reaches its highest state in performance.

But that’s easier said than done in this age of easy-does-it rock nostalgia acts and parasitic tribute bands. Getting this music right requires an odd mélange of talents, combining instrumental virtuosity with a solid sense of guerrilla theater and that certain, hard-to-define will to rock. Purveyors of standard “solid musicianship” need not apply here, on a musical terrain chock full of rapid, snake unison lines and abrupt changes of meter, genre and attitude.

Along for the ride were a few Zappa alums, vocalist/saxist Brock (the most charismatic presence onstage), an ailing but game drummer Terry Bozzio, and Steve Vai, Frank Zappa’s old “stunt guitarist,” whose daredevil but also painterly guitar solos were stunning and fun highlights of the show. Dweezil flexed his newly improved muscle-tone on his guitar solos, moving away from the circus metal of his own previous work and toward his father’s unique, angular soloing style. Even so, Vai stole the show in spite of himself. One he got busy, as with his solo on “Zomby Woof” and his duo with Dweezil on “Chunga’s Revenge,” Vai quickly demonstrated why he's the stuff of legend. Mixing his signature riffage and sonic abstraction with hammer-ons, whammy bar business, and fluid blends of techniques, Vai was clearly more intent on making meaningful music than mere “stunt” work.

Bozzio had injured his left arm, but was a trooper, providing “comic relief and teen angst” with his vocals on “I’m So Cute” and “Punky’s Whips” and later playing one-handed drum solos. Did this guy really make his name in Missing Persons?

In a funny juxtaposition of personalities, and a bit of Zappa family tree climbing, Dweezil called out younger sister Diva from the wings to dance during the infamous instrumental tour de force “The Black Page” (this tune was one of Dweezil’s audition tests, whose tricky lines quickly separate men from boys). Diva, one of the Zappa siblings who have found some fame in showbiz outside of music, looked startled at first. But she gradually launched into goofy go-go dancer moves as the band expertly maneuvered the dangerous slalom of the tune’s lines.

The family patriarch himself appeared late in the show, in eerily synched video footage of a live performance. Looming on a large screen above the stage, Zappa the elder peeled off an incendiary extended guitar solo in his pink jumpsuit, in a captivating moment from beyond. The audience was transfixed on more than one level, including the sheer lacerating intensity of Zappa’s soloing voice. Then again, during this three-hour visitation with the man’s handiwork, Frank Zappa was very much a real presence, and one whose distinctive genius seems ripe for yet another round of admiration.

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