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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2006/05/14
by Mike Gruenberg

At the Jammys: Zappa Plays Zappa

In My Life
Thanks to the good graces and generosity of my jambands.com editor, I have had the opportunity to attend the Jammys for the last four years. When I first attended the event at Roseland, I was struck by the loosely configured schedule for the various acts to appear. There seemed to be no set time for when the bands performed. There seemed to be absolutely no set time limit for how long the bands played once they got to the stage. And there seemed to be no logical order of the event itself. It just seemed that everyone just played on which quite frankly suited the audience.
Of course, being the obsessive, compulsive person that I know I could possibly be, it was always painful for me to see this labor of Dean Budnicks love roll along while ostensibly crying out for just a wee bit more organization. However for whatever organizational attributes the Jammys may or may not have, I knew that entering Madison Square Garden this year with three of my friends that we all would have a great time because the music and the vibe simply cant be beat.
In my life, I have had the good fortune to attend many concerts. Some were forgettable; some were even regrettable some were incredible and very few amazingly memorable. In one of my past careers, I played in a band. I also managed a number of rock groups and even produced a record or two. I therefore have somewhat of a musical background which comes into play because I attend all concerts with a critical eye. The venue is oft times irrelevant. The order of appearance by the performers is usually not a concern. For me, its the music! Dont care if its rock, jazz, bluegrass or soul. It always comes down to the music.
After all these years, I can still count on less than my ten fingers the concerts I have attended that left an indelible mark on my memory. Sadly, too many of the concerts I have attended have become a forgotten memory.
I loved seeing the Beatles perform at Forest Hills, but with the continual screaming and a sound system that wasnt up to par, hearing the lads was difficult. On the other hand, I do remember seeing and clearly hearing Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels in Central Park a year or two later and was amazed at how good Mitch was, but was even more impressed with his band. I could have listened to those guys until dawn.
I remember going to see Tony Williams at the Fillmore East. His bass player that night was Jack Bruce. Tony simply walked out on stage with his band already waiting for him. He sat down at his drum kit and with the first downbeat there was no doubt about how good the music to be played that night was going to be. And it sure was.

Another magical night was seeing John Sebastian play a solo concert at C.W. Post College on Long Island. On stage, were a bunch of guitars lined up on guitar stands. Sebastian is announced and he walks into the concert hall from the back of the hall and sets the tone of the evening by saying hello to as many people as possible sitting on either side of the aisle and shaking their hands as he made his way to the stage. That concert was almost like being invited over to Johns house and listening to him tell his stories by song over cake and coffee.
More recent noteworthy concert experiences were seeing Mark Knopfler at the Beacon and Peter Gabriel at Jones Beach and Crosby Stills & Nash at that same venue. All of the above mentioned concerts were memorable because the music was extraordinary. Showmanship, aside the music made the evening.
So as I took my seat and looked over the lineup of bands to be performing at this years Jammys, I saw the familiar name of Bela Fleck and was glad that he was there. Something about hearing Bela and his band that always makes you comfortable and most definitely assured that he will play up to his usual high standards. I was also quite impressed with the roster of acts performing and to see jazz greats like McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea on the program. I also felt happy to see rock guitarist Peter Frampton added to the mix. It was impressive to me that the organizers of the event took great pains to meld many styles of music along with new and established artists for the audience. Always good to see Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, as well. Finally, I was happy to see that a Lifetime Achievement Award was to be given posthumously to Frank Zappa.
Zappa always represented the best of avant-garde music. At the first playing of any Zappa album, I usually was unsure as to where he was going. However, after playing it a few times, analyzing the music by paying more than cursory attention, I always thought that I understood the music and enjoyed listening to it over and over again. It was almost as if, you had to keep listening to unearth chord changes or key changes that you somehow missed from the last time you heard it. He released 70 albums in his career and sales of Zappas albums were never as great as the more mainstream rock acts. However, his devoted followers and legion of loyal fans continued to buy his music and to this day have websites and write blogs in relation to his music and influence. All of which is deserved since Frank was a brilliant musician.
Frank was always an enigma to me. He presented some songs that were humorous in nature such as Dont Eat Yellow Snow but he wasnt a comedian. You wouldnt hear his music on mainstream rock n roll radio stations because his music was too complex and yet we should have been more exposed to the brilliance of his musicianship on those stations because his music was so extraordinary.

I was therefore somewhat curious to hear what Franks son; Dweezil had to offer when I saw his name and band listed on the program. The band that Dweezil and his brother Ahmet have put together are embarking on a world tour starting this month. The core band with Dweezil on lead guitar and vocals includes Joe Travers on Drums, Pete Griffin on Bass, Aaron Arntz on Keyboards & Vocals, Scheila Gonzalez on Horns, Keyboards & Vocals, Billy Hunting on Melodic Percussion, and Jamie Kime on Rhythm Guitar. Special guest musicians like Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ahmet Zappa will play on the tour at selected cities.
As the band ran through their songs, I sat there in virtual disbelief as to the incredible musicianship of Dweezil and the band. Granted, being Franks son and growing up intimately knowing his fathers music certainly gave him a familiar edge that few can match, but having the ability to accurately reproduce the music of Frank Zappa speaks volumes about his talent. As I listened to each band member play their parts, it became evident how special the time spent listening to Zappa Plays Zappa really was for the audience and me at the Jammys. To top it off, when they brought out jazz great, Chick Corea and Umphreys Jake Cinninger to play with the band, I was speechless.
As the band left the stage to a standing ovation, I quietly listed this short performance as a remarkable and special event. This was one of those rare moments for me where the music was special. I cannot tell you what the band played, but I can tell you it was awesome. I cannot truthfully say that I recognized all the names of the musicians in the band, but it was a joy to hear them all play the intricate music of Frank Zappa. Now that I know their names, I will make it a point to buy their records or at the very least, see them perform whenever possible. Hopefully, I will be able to see them all again when Zappa Plays Zappa performs in June at the Beacon Theater in New York City.
Special nights are rare. This was one of those nights. I am thankful to have been there.

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