Vol. 3, Issue #20 Oct. 24th - Nov. 7th, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Zappa: Mock Two

The music of Frank Zappa will not die; like a virus, the more it’s attacked, the stronger it grows. Zappa’s music has been attacked by every half-witted oaf in the world, ridiculed because it wasn’t good music, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and written off as comedy fodder for the “Dr. Demento Show.” Of course those in the know realize it’s some of the most complex, challenging, and nearly unplayable music to come out of the rock experience. Zappa’s music looks like calculations by little green men that contained the timing of Louis Armstrong and the ornateness of Haydn, often at double or triple-speed. In avant-garde classical music the French had Erik Satie, the Germans had Kurt Weil, and we had Frank Zappa, who was arguably as influential as those two giants, if not more so. It’s also arguable that, even at his most ludicrous, his songs are still on an even keel with classical music, such as the cabaret songs of both Weil and Satie.

While there has been an endless number of CD releases since Frank’s death in 1993, as both compilations and new releases of archival material, Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s oldest son, has stepped up as the musical director, vocalist, and lead guitarist of the touring group Zappa Plays Zappa. Zappa the Younger leads a small orchestra of ten multi-instrumentalists, plus guests artists from his fathers past. The 2006 six tour featured vocalist, flautist and saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who recorded with Zappa from 1974-1984, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who recorded with Zappa from 1981-1993, and drummer Terry Bozzio, who was with the band from 1974-1984. However in their two appearances in Tulsa this year they were accompanied by vocalist and guitarist Ray White, who was with Zappa from 1980-1984.

There is little doubt that Dweezil is the best person for the job. Having learned guitar from his father, whom many rank in the top guitarists of all time, Dweezil’s solos were just as mind-bending as Frank’s and Vai’s on the album “Us or Them.” Just as Leonard Bernstein’s friendship with Aaron Copland informed his recordings of Copland’s music, Dweezil’s relationship with his father gives his a giant leap over the other bands that are out there recording Frank’s works.

Sadly, this is really the first thing Dweezil has done that has worked. His solo recordings are available in cut-out bends across the country. Before Zappa Plays Zappa, Dweezil’s heaviest credit was doing the voice for Ajax on the “Duckman” cartoon series - which is nothing to sneeze at and there was that guitar solo on Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat.” While my first feelings about the concept was that it was a little too Frank-Sinatra-Juniorish (i.e. “I’m not qualified to do anything other than follow my father’s shadow,”) after seeing it live and watching the new DVD/CD box set, “Zappa Plays Zappa,” I have to give kudos to Dweezil. Learning all of those impossible songs is enough to gain my respect, but we are also seeing him come into his own as the master interpreter of Frank’s music.

It’s interesting, as so many of the rock legends have gone on to that great big American Bandstand in the sky, that in the end it’s the music that’s still standing. It might not be The Beatles performing their hits at the local concert hall, but competent performances of their catalogue can still be an amazing experience. Zappa Plays Zappa seemed like it would be that kind of experience, but if you look at it from the point of view of classical music, it’s really just the fully authorized version of Zappa as concert music. Fifteen years after his death Zappa’s music can still command a paying audience.

With the change in personnel from older incarnations of Zappa’s Mothers the play list changes to highlight the new singer’s songs, in this case, from Brock’s mid-seventies repertoire to White’s eighties period. Yet it seems like most of the songs were changed out from the two tours, for example some of the highlights in their Tulsa shows included an epic version of “Flakes,” where the funk in the finale felt like giant spiders dancing, a blazing version of “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy,” and a blistering attack on “G-Spot Tornado,” which originally Zappa recorded on Synclavier because he (wrongly) assumed that it would be impossible for humans to perform the music. None of those are on the DVD/CD set (which is a “complete” concert - taken from two performances - on CD, but only about 85% of it is on the DVDs). The set includes many songs that were not performed at our local concerts like a whirlwind version of “Echidna’s Arf (of You,)” and “Andy” from the highly underrated “Roxy & Elsewhere” and “One Size Fits All” period, not to mention Bozzio’s frantic lead vocals in “I’m So Cute” and “Tryin’ To Grow a Chin.”

So what we’re left with is “orthodox” Zappa, which almost seems like a contradiction of terms. Yet with people paying money to see Pink Floyd imitators, Beatle wannabes, and Elvis impersonators, there’s no reason for Zappa’s music to be an obscure relic on vinyl for a handful of collectors. Dweezil has stated that his dream is to bring some of Frank’s orchestral music to life, but any competent conductor can do that; only a chosen few can create a credible version of the overlong “Punky’s Whips,” which wasn’t really a fan favorite even when Frank performed it himself.

“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”

- Frank Zappa

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