Tuesday, July 24, 2007

"Zappa Plays Zappa" in Chicago 2007-07-20

Friday night I went to hear Dweezil Zappa's show, "Zappa Plays Zappa" at the Civic Opera House in Chicago (the home of the Lyric Opera).

The concert opened with no announcement other than a simple "hello" from Dweezil, and they launched into "Echinda's Arf", an energetic, progressive, hard rocking and difficult ensemble piece that ranks in the top five of my Zappa favorites. It was a pretty remarkable replication of the album, they had all the necessary personnel...which was true of most of what they did...while understandably lacking some of the soul and edge of the original recording.

Dweezil appeared to be handling all the guitar parts of the ensemble and looked pretty loose doing it...another thing that was true throughout the concert. This created a big impression on me because although I knew that Dweezil had accomplished much in capturing his father's lead-guitar solo style, I hadn't known he gained such high musical chops in general.

Echidna's ended bluntly right where it would have gone into "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" on the 'Roxy and Elsewhere' album. Dweezil's words to the audience were brief and very non-scripted. He gave some props to the people who had been at previous Chicago shows and other shows in general and then "well, shall we play some more?" That was as detailed as the audience dialog got the entire evening...no reminisces, nothing about what an honor, or great responsibility, etc. it was to play Frank's music. Simple, and natural.

I was expecting more, and perhaps many more might have felt more like the old days if we'd gotten a reminder of Zappa's barbs and wit. Or a reminder of his challenging insults...as I remember from a Bongo Fury concert where he suggested that we were a bunch of stooges and should just leave...or the the beyond-raunchy humor, as I remember from a concert from the Flo & Eddie period. But I'm grateful that Dweezil didn't try to recapture any of it, and I think many others were too. Even with the genetic privileges, no one is Frank but Frank; imitating his raunchy or satirical style would have fallen flat. And if Dweezil made no "pay respects" speeches, well, maybe he couldn't find a way to do it that didn't sound insincere, compulsory or scripted. So hats off to Dweezil for showing class, keeping the mood relaxed and showing best respect he could have paid...doing kick-ass music with a top notch band.

I didn't write down the set list but I got the following from this web site:

1) Echnida's Arf
2) My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama
3) Dirty Love
4) Black Napkins (w/FZ video)
5) Suzy Creamcheese
6) Brown Shoes Don't Make It
7) America Drinks & Goes Home
8) City Of Tiny Lights (Ray White joins band onstage, and remains for duration)
9) Pygmy Twylyte
10) Montana (w/FZ video)
11) Cheepnis
12) Advance Romance
13) Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy
14) Dumb All Over (w/FZ video)
15) What's New In Baltimore
16) Dupree's Paradise (40 minutes long, featuring individual solos by each band member);
17) Uncle Remus
18) Willie The Pimp
19) Joe's Garage
20) Wind Up Workin' In The Gas Station
21) San Berdino
22) IL Enema Bandit
23) Wild Love
24) Yo' Mama
25) Cosmik Debris (w/FZ video)
26) (1st Encore) Muffin Man (w/FZ video)
27) (2d Encore) G-Spot Tornado

"My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" mimicked the "Weasles Ripped My Flesh" version mostly. Dweezil's voice was leaden and off-pitch on this, but I think it must have been performance jitters because it was much better for the rest of the concert. He doesn't sound much like Frank, although at times he may have been trying to.

The five songs with Zappa video were brilliantly done. If it contained a solo, the audio of the video was cued out and the band played the music, with Dweezil performing a note-perfect re-performance of what Frank was playing on the screen. If it had Frank singing, the original vocal track was used, with the band handling the back up. Not that I'm an expert on Zappa video clips, but they seemed to be less-well-known clips...selected I suspect, because the audio available was pre-mixed and allowed for the isolation of the vocal track. I think everyone in the audience found the videos and synchronized performance very gratifying. The labor of love it must have taken Dweezil to learn those solos was the greatest tribute he could have paid.

Which got the crowd pumped, of course. The crowd was a real trip. Age 45-55, male, and eternally young is how I would have described the typical member. And there were the requisite number of "rock ladies" of a similar age group, but carrying off their role in style nonetheless. For these fans, this was their night. Even though the majority of them probably came from the burbs via the Ogilvy train station, that didn't stop them from standing, playing air guitar, shouting "Chicago-ooooo", and pumping their fists whenever Dweezil's solos got loud and fast. And there was the familiar fragrance in the air that was a pleasant reminder of the rock concerts I haven't been going to for many a year. I can't wait until I'm at the Lyric later this year for Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten and see if some of the fragrance is still in the air.

I was the most impressed with the medley of songs from "Absolutely Free", which Dweezil announced was new for this show, and "for those of you who go WAY back". 'Suzy Creamcheese' was fun, and 'America Drinks and Goes Home' was played with the appropriate piano playing and lounge sleeziness (with a word-for-word replication of the lounge singer's patter...including the beloved 'Caravan with a drum sola?'), but who dares take on the mini-opera "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" without risking utter failure? At the end of "Little House I Used to Live In" on "Burnt Weeney Sandwich", Frank acknowledges how hard it is to play. But play it they did, with nothing left out and as note perfect as you could expect that ensemble could do, in that performance space. Wow. Wow not just for the stellar performance, but for the guts to take on an item in the catalog that is a pretty distant memory in even the staunchest of fans.

The only period of Frank's output that I thought lacking in the performance was from the "Flo and Eddie" period. Like Frank, noone can be Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, but they certainly had capable singers to handle the high falsettos and the gritty rock singing. I wonder who else finds this an obvious omission, because few among Zappa fandom place their era among the top three greatest Zappa bands ever, as I do. In fact, to my amazement, many are willing to put them in the bottom three. But besides loving the music and humor of that period, I will never forget watching Frank at Bridges Auditorium (Pomona, CA) while they performed the premeire of 'Billy the Mountain', lounging against the procenium arch with a cigarette in hand and Gibson SG around his neck, unguardedly laughing and being tickled pink by Flo & Eddie's carryings-on.

Ray White was the only guest from the actual Zappa past that appeared for this show, and he performed songs typical of his era. This is where I got schooled by Dweezil on some music I should really get to know. Like most Zappa fans, I've got my preferences and I'm far from an expert on the entire corpus of Frank's works. But I realize now that I've really got to get to know "Carolina Hard Core Ecstacy," "What's New in Baltimore?" and "Dupree's Paradise" a little better.

A performer who was a real standout is the multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez, who amazingly handled several woodwinds, including the important Napoleon Murphy Brock sax parts, keyboard and lead vocals. She also dressed up like a waitress to "serve drinks" to the band during the playing of "America Drinks and Goes Home."

My wife Carol Ann, who came with me, played her role of a typical male Zappa fan's 'old lady' quite well, asking me playfully every few minutes if I was "getting goosebumps". I'll admit to that happening twice: once when the first Zappa videos came on the screen, and again after the concert, when I found a picture of Dweezil playing what is probably one of his Dad's old Gibson SG's, its vintage easily recognizable from the beat-up humbuckers and ancient-looking tremelo-bar hardware, and very possibly the very instrument I saw back at Bridges Auditorium.

Bottom line: did I enjoy it? I'd give it a 3 out of 5. Why such an average score? Playing note-perfect transcriptions has its down side...it's one thing when a group blows your mind in ten other ways, and for one of their songs, blows you away with their accuracy on imitating one song...but a whole evening? You get the picture. I think maybe also the feeling was in the air that we were all wanting to feel like we were back in the day, listening to Frank live...but for me at least, the intenseness of those concerts and albums are best as a memory and revived by the original recordings.

On a personal note, the tickets I got were a present for my recent birthday, and we closed off the evening in style by eating at Rosal's on Taylor.

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