Zappa Plays Zappa, Dodge Theatre, Phoenix, AZ 8/17
Dweezil Zappa has kept his promised pledge from the Phoenix stage in 2006 to continue bringing his father’s music to the masses. After all, there are nearly 7,349 albums of Frank Zappa material in-and-out of circulation so why not pay homage to the maestro? Why, indeed? The late Frank Zappa won the 2006 Jammys Lifetime Achievement Award at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. At the star-studded event, his son brought out a veteran band of incomparable talents to work through a surprisingly powerful set of fan favorites and nearly-forgotten obscurios. Zappa’s music is not easy to grasp as a listener, let alone as a musician. It takes work and the payoff can be quite extraordinary. The fact that Dweezil and crew made it appear so easy only enhanced the Jammys award and probably would have arched an eyebrow on the famous head of his father.
In 2006, Dweezil, with his traveling band known as Zappa Plays Zappa, stuck to that edgy formulafavorites plus weird gems inside the Muffin Man’s vaultand it worked. However, the Zappa prodigal son knew he would have to up the ante in 2007 and create a new, flexible set akin to the challenging criteria of the jazz, improv and jamband worlds. And, again, at the Dodge Theatresame venue where I saw him play last year as well as the Garden in New Yorkhe made his father’s music accessible and somehow effortless to play and that’s quite a heady trick to pull off. Think “Reba” or “Unbroken Chain” but think of those two Phish/Dead songs over an entire two hour-plus evening and you get a pretty good portrait of the ZPZ 2007 modelintricate, funky and a hell of a lot of fun.
This year’s band consists of Zappa on guitar and vocals, Aaron Arntz on keyboards and trumpet, Scheila Gonzalez on sax, flute, keyboards and vocals, Pete Griffin on bass, Billy Hulting on marimba, mallets and percussion, Jamie Kime on guitar, Joe Travers on drums and vocals and former Frank Zappa band member, Ray White on guitar and vocals. White, of course, appeared on the seminal works Zappa in New York, Tinsel Town Rebellion and You Are What You Is. White would hit the stage for a fine reading of “City of Tiny Lights” after Zappa guided the band through spotless versions of “Suzy Creamcheese” and “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”the latter spotlighting Gonzalez as a cocktail waitress and Griffin on cello while Arntz slid between trumpet and keys while the drummer sang. Eccentric High Wire Circus Music, indeed.
White was a great foil to the cool and relaxed stage persona that is Dweezil Zappa. Dweezil has eased into a confident position which fluctuates between “Look, maALL hands” guitar hero theatrics to seasoned guide for the split-second segued passages. He handled these duties quite well from “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy”with a “Roger Daltrey cape”to “Dumb All Over” with Frank Zappa on lead vocals and a scorching guitar solo from a backing video screen to “Pygmy Twylyte” with an absolutely extraordinary solo from Dweezil that was followed by comic relief as a phrase was randomly chosen from the audience to be inserted into “Dupree’s Paradise.” This latter song also offered the portion of the program where Zappa directs improvisation via hand signals and the sequence didn’t disappoint as momentum was loosely controlled and then tightened based upon the musician’s individual ideas.
The second half of the single set was an onslaught of highlights as the band became a unified unit with no instrument more important than the other. “Uncle Remus” paved the road for a stout version of “Willie the Pimp” before Dweezil dedicated “Joe’s Garage” to two heady children near the front with their parents (earplugs inserted; no, not my boys). “Wind Up Workin’ In a Gas Station”>”San Ber’dino” was a thundering beast that only served as an appetite for the destruction that followeda long ass workout on “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” and a truly peak performance reminiscent of Papa Zappa’s band.
Dweezil didn’t seem to even be working up a sweat, let alone phased by the arching complexity of his father’s material. Neither did the band as they cranked the tight melodic complexity another two notches for a reading of “Wild Love”>”Yo Mama” that served to hit another set peak and close the show. The band encored with “Cosmik Debris” and “Muffin Man” to return the focus to the humorous acid wit of Zappa’s oeuvre. Dweezil Zappa proved that his second year paying homage to his father’s music would continue celebrating his legacy and prove to be an almost unfathomable deep well.