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Published: 2009/03/01
by Randy Ray

Zappa Plays Zappa, Dodge Theatre, Phoenix, AZ 2/26

“These guys are awesome,” quipped Dweezil from the Phoenix stage. “They must be because they gave them a fuckin’ Grammy.”

Dweezil Zappa continued the successful celebration of his legendary father’s illustrious career with his third stop in as many years at the 5,000-seat Phoenix venue. Once again, Zappa the Younger dug just a little deeper into the catalogue for another round of fascinating interpretations of a composer who still defiantly remains ahead of his time.

This ultimate familial tribute band to a man with an enormous body of work across numerous genres from classical to jazz to avant-garde to doo wop and hard rock consists of Zappa as the de facto bandleader 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.

The talented troupe recently won a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award for “Peaches en Regalia,” which Dweezil dedicated to his father, and is quick to point out in subsequent interviews that this is the first Grammy ever awarded to a tribute band. Somehow that makes perfect sense as Zappa Plays Zappa began its never-ending tribute tour to the elder maestro right around the time they accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Jammys for Frank Zappa’s spectacular career. At the 2009 Grammys, Dweezil Zappa momentarily let his guard down, and was quite moved by the occasion:

“Thank you very much. Obviously this means a lot. I’m trying to keep it together. This particular song means a lot. It’s forty years old and it was on the record that was dedicated to me when I was born, so I’m dedicating it right back”
The latest canonical tribute at the Dodge began with a tribute of sorts to another guitar master: Sir Edward Van Halen. Dweezil opened the show by walking out solo on to the stage with an actual EVH guitarblack with yellow stripes in various Van Halen-approved patternsand commenced to tell a story of how Van Halen phoned the Zappa house in Los Angeles back in the early 1980s when the guitarist was merely 12 years old, had only been playing guitar for around six months at that point, and absolutely worshiped Eddie VH. Well, the heavy metal hero asked to come over, he was granted his wish, and upon arrival, a determined Dweezil hoisted a guitar to his reining King of the Strings, and promptly said, “Play “Eruption.” And Van Halen did, all while wearing his Women & Children First jump suit, while Dweezil stood by in mind-blowing awe.

And then Dweezil ripped into the famous “Eruption” solo on the Dodge Theatre stage to begin another evening of a tribute to his father’s music with a tribute to another guitarist who was a primary influence in his often own form of mind-blowing technique and skill. That part of the evening over, the band tore into “Andy” from One Size Fits All with Ray White on vocals and temporarily enduring a monitor that wasn’t responding properly, some great band interplay that was both tight yet surprisingly loose, and a classic Zappa guitar solo finale. A rarely playedone of a handful on this evening of old and new nuggets found by Dweezil in his search through the archives for interesting tunes for his band to playgem from Absolutely Free followed as “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right” kicked in, and was given a cursory run-through, valued more for its rare appearance than anything else. That may have been a recurring theme throughout the evening as some of the more obscure pieces weren’t exactly Zappa minor masterpieces dusted off for old time’s sake. Instead, Dweezil may have chosen them more for the fact that a) the song(s) are a personal favorite, and he enjoys playing them with this band, and/or b) the die-hard Zappa fan would love to hear them since they were either never, or rarely played.

The meat of the show appeared out of nowhere as the band launched into an extended run of songs that originally appeared on the Roxy & Elsewhere live release. “Penguins in Bondage” began the glorious Roxy montage, albeit inexplicably interspersed with “Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station” from Zoots Allure, which didn’t make literal sense, but did thematically when one considered that Zappa was tweaking sonic expectations while playing to his internal FZ muse, and veering off script to enhance a setlist’s potential.

And it did. What followed was, quite frankly, one bloody brilliant segue after another as the “Village of the Sun>Echidna’s Arf>Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” sequence from Roxy was performed with daring, diligence, expertise, and ultra-fine and intricate perfection as each band member played off each other in an often extremely difficult composed series of musical delights.

The 40th Anniversary + a year of Lumpy Gravy prompted the appearance of the theme to that early Zappa orchestral work after Dweezil acknowledged an 8-year old in the crowd with his parents, but also emphasizing that he better be wearing ear plugs. 1969 was represented by stellar readings of “Dog Breath” and “Pound for a Brown.” The latter was prefaced by a comment by Dweezil about “a song with a few left turns as they like to take left turns.” During the song’s improv journey, Dweezil offered Ray White a chance to sing and play the Zappa guitar as long as it was a solo not in a “blues” milieu, a White request due to its prevalence in his background. “Pound for a Brown” was another peak moment as Zappa led the band through numerous improvisations with various spotlights on performers as they charged through audio side streets until finding themselves back in an amazing common groove with a re-iteration of the song’s central motif.

Later, “Cleetus Awreetus Awrightus” was dusted off, and according to all known sources and Dweezil himself, the song had never been played except for its lone appearance “on an album with a lot of horns The Grand Wazoo.” “Eat the Question” followed, as it does on the Wazoo jazz fusion album, before “Camarillo Brillo” and “Peaches en Regalia” were delivered as dynamic late set touchstones, and subsequently, the band concluded the set with “Zombie Woof,” and another fine guitar solo from Dweezil.

Zappa Plays Zappa encored with “The Torture Never Stops” which distinguished itself with a beautifully ethereal solo from Dweezil that emphasized echo effects and atmosphere over machismo and chutzpah. In truth, his solo was the highlight of the night, and reminded me that he is also quite a unique sound sculptor and gifted stylist himself. “Muffin Man” ended the eveninga request from a local restaurant owner, whom Dweezil feels serves great foodand also featured more Dweezil guitar theatrics, but in a more traditional sense, rather than an epic adventure through scenic noodlery.

Dweezil Zappa appears to have only scratched the surface during these recent tributatory tours acknowledging his father’s great work. Indeed, during one passage of the show, the guitarist stated that he and the band are expanding and diversifying the Zappa fan base, and even if he wasn’t up on the stage, carefully sifting through the gold mine of his father’s canon, he would appreciate it if the legacy continues and his father’s music be heard. 15 years after his father’s passing, that doesn’t seem like a problem as one is given more of a chance to see how wonderfully timeless most of Frank Zappa’s music became.

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