Zappa Plays Zappa

OK, I wanted to avoid going to this show. I have heard some of the audience recordings, read the reviews, read the seemingly endless string of Dweezil “interviews”… I get it… But something about the Zappa Family propaganda stunk. Dweezil is talking about wanting to expose a younger audience to Frank’s music… saying that the only right way is to play “the notes that Frank wrote”… Dweezil saying that he isn’t trying to play like Frank… all of which, I suspected, were junk.

A mere 6 hours before show time my phone rings, and my pal George has a spare ticket. Fate. The next thing I know we are off to the “Chevroley Theatre” in Wallingford, CT to see da show. It takes about two minutes to see that the “younger audience” bit is BS. The parking lot is full of aging tailgating stoners… A baby boomer convention with no more than a few “kids”. The $50 tickets probably didn’t help either.

OK, the show is a Sunday night affair with an early start. ZPZ kicks off with Andy, one of my favorite pieces from One Size Fits All. Pretty much a by-the-numbers version. The next tune is “Call Any Vegetable” and the “notes that Frank wrote” rule dies and early death. It resembles nothing that Frank ever recorded. Dopey reharmonization arrangement, style-appropriate sections that seem to have been written from whole cloth. We can all relax now. The memories of the classic FZ lineups have noting to fear from this act.

Upside: the band is very good. Nobody seems over their head, fine playing across the board. Joe Travers sounds like he can’t help but get cute with every passage. The ad libbing would be easier to take of it wasn’t stepping on the feel. Chad Wackerman can sleep easy.

I’ve seen setlists for this tour (boilerplate setlist at the end of this post) and there are no real deviations on the menu. That is kinda sad. Frank mixed it up, and his bands had about 3 full shows worth of material under their fingers. According to Dweezil these guys are concentrating on the set, and not expanding it. That’s OK, but the static setlist is giving this show a “Vegas Revue” feel by the time it is about 45 minutes along. The banter that Dweezil provides is banal. Asking “who here has a copy of Hot Rats”??? Kid, it came out 34 freaking years ago. Let’s get the show rolling. As the guy behind me said: “Play Peaches and shut the fuck up”. Great advice.

The “ringers”: Napoleon Murphy Brock is outstanding as usual. He takes a few tunes to get warm and is dancing his butt off for the bulk of the next two hours. The guy has a great work ethic, a super voice, and knows all of the horn parts cold. I’ve been on stage with the guy and I know firsthand that he is a total pro. His “real job” is to provide “gravitas” and “cred”, and I suspect he keeps the band from getting off the script. Terry Bozzio is amazing, and sings I’m So Cute, Punky’s Whips, and plays The Black Page, both the solo and the “hard version” with the band. Great stuff. There are a LOT of drum geeks here to see Terry. Steve Vai, same deal. Killer guitar, pretends to play rhythm guitar (just like the old days!!!), and slays the place on his solos. LOTS of guitar geeks there to see Vai. The guy delivers. He also provides contrast to Dweezil’s balky playing. Dweezil’s solo concept is to string licks together, occasionally clamming notes, not playing with a lot of confidence. Vai plays like the guitar is a body part. Blowin’ solos… He may have taught Dweezil some tricks back in the day, but…

It is very clear that Vai and Bozzio are responsible for a large portion of the turnout. There is now way that they would put a crowd into a venue like the Chevy/Oakdale without them. If it was Dweezil, or Dweezil with Napi, I believe that ZPZ would be booked at Toads with 250 through the door, not doing much more in attendance than Project/Object. But Vai and Bozzio have the strongest post-FZ careers, along with (arguably) Adrian Belew, and Belew hasn’t played much Zappa since that very short stint in ’77 until a few recent shows with the Paul Green School of Rock. So the “younger audience” could be a euphemism for “Vai and Bozzio fans”… Who knows? But the whole show gets better, immediately, when they are on stage.

OK, so it sounds like I hated the show? Wrong. These guys deserve high praise for getting Frank’s music out in front of *anybody*; young, geezerly, or otherwise. I am glad that I got to see ZPZ, if for nothing else than to compare this effort to the many FZ trib acts I have seen over the last few years, and heard via audience tapes, etc… ZPZ ranks highly with me interms of Zappa cover efforts, but that is what they are. Any attempt to disguise it behind Dweezil’s posturing, Gail’s rants, or other constructs, well it falls flat. This band is not doing what they would be doing with Frank at the helm. But they are doing a great job in keeping the music in the public eye.

A few freeform notes:

If the ZFT really wanted to get a young audience exposed to Zappa music, they would get on board with iTunes, or throw down with their own zTunes, etc… that younger audience is not going to plunk down large chunks of change for the overpriced reissues that are coming out of Zappa Records. The ZFT business plan has always been suspect, but if this tour was really about exposing a younger audience to FZ, then they need a new plan of some sort. Honestly, it smacks of a cover story to sweeten the deal for boomers with disposable cash.

The secret word for the night should have been “eyebrows”, which were not in attendance. The band is competent, but nary an “eyebrow” was to be seen. If you don’t get this, try google for “zappa” and “eyebrows”.

Dweezil’s solo on Inca Roads seemed like a disaster. The band seemed to realize that they needed to help cut it short and limit the damage. What made it worse was knowing that it would have made for a killer Vai cameo/entre’ and Vai would have been heart-wrenchingly excellent on it.

Schiela Gonzales is the real goods. Sax, flute, keys, vocals… she rocked. Her playing with Napi, and keys guy Aaron Arntz on trumpet, were reminiscent of the ’88 band horn sound. Watch for her, because she is very, very good. See the lineup HERE.

As a first step, ZPZ seems like a success. if anyone think that this is the pinnacle, they need to get out more. Frank influenced a generation of listeners and musicians, and they know the real deal. This was cute, but not the real deal.

Setlist: (to be verified)
1) Andy
2) Call Any Vegetables
3) Tell Me You Love Me
4) Who are the Brain Police
5) Can’t Afford No Shoes
6) Sheila’s Kenny-G Jam
7) Pygmy Twylyte
8) Idiot Bastard Son
9) Cheepnis
10) I am the Slime
11) A Pound for a Brown
12) a. Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow
b. St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast
c. Father Oblivion
13) Inca Roads
14) I’m So Cute
15) Trying to Grow a Chin
16) Advance Romance
17) Punky’s Whips
18) The Black Page
19) Peaches
20) Montana
21) Village of the Sun
22) Echidna’s Arf
23) Zomby Woof
24) Black Napkins
25) The Torture Never Stops
26) More Trouble Every Day
27) Introductions/Token of his Extreme
28) Regypian Strut

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