Friday, November 9, 2007

Zappa Plays Zappa

The Legacy lives on.

And it was very much like old times.

On Wednesday, November 7, the Warner Theater was the place to be when Dweezil Zappa and the Zappa Plays Zappa band, a well-rehearsed, seven piece ensemble running the gamut from guitar, bass, and drums to sax, flute, and rock n' roll xylophone stormed the stage for a visit to DC. It was an unusual performance as you would expect: the music entirely dominating the presentation, but containing moments of spontaneous mirth and merriment that certainly would have done the old boy proud. And Frank was not only the inspiration, but a participant in the show too, after a fashion.

They got off to a furious start with "Zoot Allures," a tasty instrumental from FZ's mid-70's era, followed by "Lonely little Girl," and beatifically smiling his infectious grin and deliberately pronouncing each accented syllable, we were treated to the sight and sound of Frank himself, first tearing through a great rendition of "Cosmik Debris," as well as footage of him later in the 3 hour set, shutting up and playing the hell out of his guitar on the "Dog Breath/Uncle Meat" medley (referred to in the program as "Dog Meat.") Other classic and more obscure Zappa compositions included "Wind Up Working in a Gas Station" (also from Zoot Allures), "City of Tiny Lights" from Sheik Yerbouti, a dazzling jam on "Dupree's Paradise," "G Spot Tornado," a piece originally performed solo on synclavier by Frank (as Dweezil noted, during one of his "people are so annoying" periods) which sounded even more powerful as filled out by the band, and a choreographed "Willie the Pimp," which featured the playful slap and tickle silliness that many recall as Zappa's trademark.

And while humor was certainly one aspect of Frank's storied career, the show also showcased the skill, versatility, and sheer virtuosity Frank and his incredible bands always demonstrated, pulling off these arrangements live. I was always blown away by the amazing bands that toured with Frank, and occasionally, he'd even put down the guitar (that guitar which, incidentally, Dweezil still plays!), turned his back to the audience and pick up the baton to conduct. Dweezil didn't exactly do that, but the band clearly cued on his signals, and followed his lead. For his part, he showed a tremendous knowledge of his Dad's chops, executing dizzying runs down the frets at breakneck while speed looking cool as the proverbial cucumber, then picking up a line again a few bars later, not playing Frank's songs note for note, but keeping faithful to their character. He didn't try to match his father's speed or almost frenetic style, but captured it successfully, nonetheless, a true student of his father's work and one of only a handful of men alive that could do him justice. He also gracefully laid out on the songs that featured videotapes of his father performing, looking up at him and back to the crowd in reverence and acknowledging that iconoclastic wild man from Baltimore who made the night possible.

Veteran Zappa sideman Ray White was their special guest, offering up dynamic vocals occasionally supplemented by guitar (and hot water bottle- but I'm not gonna explain that, you'll have to figure it out, or hope they play it at the show next year!). The rest of the band was capably filled out by Aaron Arntz on keyboards and occasional trumpet, Pete Griffin on bass, Scheila Gonzalez on sax, flute, vocals, and keyboards, Jamie Kime on rhythm guitar, Joe Travers on drums and vocals, and percussionist Billy Hulting on marimbas and various percussion (including the forementioned xylophone, a staple with any ensemble performing Zappa pieces).

The show ended with a somewhat truncated version of the Bongo Fury collaboration between FZ and Captain Beefheart, "The Muffin Man," that probably should have included Frank's hysterical intro, the recording of which even he could not get through without laughing. This was the second year of the Tour de Frank, and if the performance we watched was any indication, the tour will continue spreading the word and wisdom of Frank Zappa for many years to come. It was a labor of love that didn't go unnoticed- and five will get you ten that when the Tour de Frank returns, that entire crowd will be back to see what surprises are in store next year!

Bravo and well done to Dweezil and his band, for their painstaking recreations of Frank Zappa's unique songs- you could almost see Frank up in the rafters, baton in hand, nodding and striking up the band for another encore.

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