Zappa Plays Zappa, Dodge Theatre, Phoenix, AZ- 6/21
“The peak was without a doubt the Dweezil Zappa set featuring the music of his late father that had outstanding playing coiled around extremely complex music i.e. “Inca Roads.” Chick Corea, a veteran of the Miles Davis Bitches Brew-era band and many other jazz fusion explorations sat in with Zappa and FZ vet Napoleon Murphy Brock as did UM’s Jake Cinninger who turned in the type of guest spot which solidifies the definition of jam music. This lineup raised an extremely high bar for 2006 live music” – Notes from the Road, Jambands.com, Jammy Awards, 4/20/06
The Zappa Plays Zappa festivities began in a very Frankish fashion by including a concert clip from a screen behind the Phoenix stage circa-1973 at the Roxy with an introduction from the maestro himself to the Sunset Strip crowd before the band slipped into a flawless rendition of “Montana” (not the intro to “YEM” on PHISH’s A Live One), before the film cut out due to technical difficulties. Dweezilthe current maestro-of-ceremonies and arguably Zappa’s most gifted musical offspringquipped, “Oh hell, we will play [“Montana”]. And yes, we will do “King Kong” (not Peter “Slim REALLY Fast” Jackson’s version]. We’ll get started and hopefully, Napoleon [former Zappa vocalistwho also appeared in the time-warped ’73 Roxy clip] Murphy Brock will join us.” Apparently, the early end to the clip had left the band unprepared so in true Frankish fashion, part II, they began the majestic weirdness before the starter’s pistol had sounded.
The band consisted of two horn players, one on keys, a drummer and percussionist, bass, rhythm guitar and Dweezil on lead guitar wizardry. As if on cue, Brock came out on sax and also delivered numerous Frank Zappa-penned breath-intake-challenged lyrical gems throughout the two hour-plus solo set. “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” segued out of nowhere to shatter the illusion after two delicious instrumentals that this would be an all-vocal-less evening. Contrary to many of my friends, I thought Zappa played better when he wasn’t trying to concoct clever cultural commentary. That’s just me but I like my twisted mojo funk without too much chit chat, dig. Hence, I would never take a restroom break during the Grateful Dead’s “Drumz/Space” explorations or PHISH as they ran through a nutzoid passage of improv trajectory i.e. any version of “Bathtub Gin.”
Zappa hadn’t played live since 1993two years prior to his untimely demise due to prostrate cancerso I sat there with the throng of 5,000 pretending that many of the songs were, indeed, being played with one of Zappa’s mid-70s stellar lineups featuring Chester Thompson, Jean Luc Ponty, et al. Actually, Dweezil’s virtual band of no-name stellar musicians were not only up to the task but as precisely intricate and delightfully eccentric as they had been in New York at the Jammys in the spring. Dweezil, especially, not only physically resembles his father but he also has the statuesque charisma that epitomized his father’s guitar player. While layer upon layer of sheets of sound were rippling from his amps, the band kept focus and weaved exotic and extremely challenging time signatures into the mix. I closed my eyes and pretended to be in the Land of the Heady 70s as Dweezil speared one pearl after another pearl through his line of vision and produced as many cheers as he did laughs and smirks of recognition.
“People just don’t get IT,” chuckled Zappa in an accurate resemblance and statement of the Zappa family creed. Earlier in the day, I had handed a copy of the Arizona Republic newspaper to my wife and said, “I don’t think that’s Frank Zappa,” referencing a photo above a story discussing his career while previewing the evening’s Zappa Plays Zappa concert. Apparently, someone had shown this photo to Dweezil and he recognized Ringo Starr who had played Frank Zappa in the film 200 Motels. The crowd laughed, as well, after Dweezil made his jest and someone in the crowd tossed up the paper to him and he said, “And here it is!” And Dweezil and his crack band went right back into the music following with “Chester’s Gorilla” to prove what people should get when they get IT.
The easy winner of gig highlight was the sublimely perverted version of the promised “King Kong.” The only relationship to his father’s Uncle Meat masterpiece was the theme played in a reggae rhythm at the beginning and coda of the song. In between, it was all maestro as Dweezil worked his band like an elastic rubber band using Frankish hand signals that allowed for stop-and-start improv while raising the tempo without any warning, venturing into unknown psycho jam-o-topia, the Pink Panther theme and mind-bending sax work from Napoleon Murphy Brock. The crowd was mesmerized, as I was, as the song seemed to lift further and further away from any semblance of melody but was gloriously intoxicating with each member being directed in some atonal audio architecture that began with middle floors and no basements or roofsthe only equivalent I could find in my brain’s memory bank was the great improv seat-of-the-pants performances by Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra (and I think it is safe to say that occasional EO member, PHISH drummer, Jon Fishman is a bit of a Zappahead).
That heady peak led into a mammoth greatest hits seguefest that crunched with heavy volume and precise musicianship into “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow>St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast>Inca Roads (appropriately “about a spaceship that landed in a desert,” offered Zappa) with Brock on vocals and flute>The Grand Wazoo.” Former Zappa (late 70s to mid 80s) drummer Terry Bozzio entered the stage and brought everything crashing down as “a cross between Bobby McFerrin and Iggy Pop” according to a prophetic Dweezil Zappa. Bozzio had injured his shoulder so instead of drumming he came out and sang a couple of Zappa’s more punkish/teen angst songs. To understand my response, see the aforementioned comments about Frank Zappa “lyric-driven” songs. Bozzio eventually took up Def Leppard one-armed drums and then Steve Vai entered the stage and they tore through an incendiary “Peaches En Regalia” before the band segued back into “Montana” which began the set two hours and twenty minutes prior. “Montana” featured the best jamming of the evening as Zappa and Vai traded supersonic lead licks like a Celebrity Deathmatch gone insane beyond all six-stringed reason.
The screen came down again and Frank and Dweezil played together with what can only be described as a bit of inspired borrowed creativity mixed in the melting pot of sonic inventiona rather pretentious but accurate definition of the entire Zappa pantheonfrom Lumpy Gravy to Lather.
The Zappa Plays Zappa tour began in Europe, and crossed America until it hit the West Coast. I had thought that maybe Dweezil had only planned on one little jaunt. Fortunately, my assessment was incorrect. At the end of the Dodge Theatre show, Zappa raised many satisfied eyebrows when he stated, “We plan on doing this every year from here on out. Over 70 albums to choose fromso why the fuck not?”
And who would deny the man that? Apparently not a Frank Zappa fan in the house. Will these Dweezil adventures as tributes to the music of his father bring new ears to the magic? As alwayswe shall see.