I have been home for a week from my trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. I m almost all the way back in terms of gastrointestinal flora and my need for a constant supply of soft, delicious, cellar temperature ales.
There was a voice in my head, and also coming from a few friends: You went 3,000 miles to spend two nights listening to some geezers play Zappa music? Well, Yes. Of course I did. First of all, for several reasons, there is nothing like that going on in the USA. Europe has been a bit of a safe haven for people who include Zappa music in their repertoire. Firstly, the audience gets it. Secondly, there is much less interference and bullying from the Zappa family. The same event, held in Connecticut, would have received threats of legal action. Not might-have. Would-have.
Additionally, I get to see old friends that I have met at Zappanale, or putting faces with people I only know from their internet presence. That is a lot of fun. Having a chat and a pint with a new friend is a special event. I don’t take it for granted.
Lastly, the performances always have a side effect. That is usually a revelation, insight, or reference that leads to an “a ha” moment. This festival was full of those. Here is one….
One of the mysteries of the tribute-band world, and I will stay specifically on the subject of Zappa tributes, is that often the best shows to be at don’t hold up when you listen to the recording. The event often trumps the content. As a musician that has often left me puzzled. This festival cleared it up for me once and for all (for now).
I will start with a stark comparison:
In the red corner: Zappa Plays Zappa is a great band, well rehearsed, all the notes in the right place, excellent arrangements, and they bore me to death. I have stated before that Dweezil has the personality of a wet ball of yarn, but then I received several delightful videos from wet yarn balls. Point taken. I will repeat: Great Band. If you are looking to hear spot-on performances, they are the best of the best. Aside from their connection to She Who Shall Not Be Named, I wish them all the best (they are on tour as I type this).
In the other corner, Acton Zappa.
They opened the Moo Ah festival. A new band that worked their asses off to play power-trio versions of some Zappa compositions, and had a lot of fun doing it. I had met their guitarist, Mike Fox, before and it was great to see him taking a band onto a stage and “cranking some Frank”. I am in no hurry to hear the audio from that set. To be honest, no more than I am to hear the audio from the set my pickup band played on the Kamp in Bad Doberan in 2009. The idea was not stunning technical performances. The idea was to have fun. Fun, dear reader, is something that Frank Zappa himself exemplified. Whether it was his constantly evolving sense of humor, sense of indignation, glee at leading his amazing bands… Fun. M-F’in FUN. Acton Zappa had fun. Well done, boys!
The Referee: Ideally you would have both. A band like the Muffin Men (Liverpool boys, aka the “Flab Four”) pulls that off beautifully. They have the music under their fingers and can play with a power and fluidity that eludes many other groups. You wouldn’t know it to look at them but the boys can crush you with a Sabbath cover as easily as a tricky Zappa passage. When they mash up Faeries Wear Boots with Brown Shoes Don’t Make It they do both at once.
OK, metaphor exhausted, the Big One in terms of epiphanies was that the best acts to see are not the bands trying to recreate a specific Zappa lineup, or record, or concert.. That is impossible. You will never get it right. There is no amount of rehearsal that will do it. You are not good enough. There is no Frank to lead you through it. You are doomed to fail. Turn back now. That goes for Zappa alumni, and Zappa progeny. Your best bet is to work very hard, learn the parts as a unit, and be yourself at the end of the process. Yes, if you play St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast you will have to play the marimba lick, and play it well. Or you just bend a string like… and let the notes fall where they may. But between those poles is certain failure.
In order to be fully smacked in the head by this concept I had to take one of my favorite observations, and then actually observe it: There are more Zappa alumni playing Zappa music at this moment than at any time since 1988. With a few exceptions they are not trying to recreate any specific era. They are skilled musicians who have had time to come to grips with their own skills, desires, emotions, and the music they worked so hard to perform. Banned From Utopia, Grand Mothers: Re-Invented, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Ed Mann… even Terry Bozzio still plays the Black Page at clinics and the occasional festival (erghhhhhhhhhh, sorry). I believe that it took time for Frank to be far enough away, in all senses, for the musicians he employed to break free from his shadow. It is enough to play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart. There is a lot of that going on out there if you are interested. I think Z3 is kicking major ass at the moment, fwiw.
Whether you were in the band for one tour, twenty years, or never, that is the bar: “play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart.”. To fail at that is to fail yourself and fail The Master.