I consider myself a big Frank Zappa fan. Yet, just by looking over his discography, I realized that I am not that big a Frank Zappa fan. He has over 60 albums produced, hundreds of live shows recorded and released, tv performances, movies, etc. I would need three lifetimes of isolated listening just to digest (and understand) even half of his catalog.
So when I recently bought tickets to see Zappa Plays Zappa at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, I went into it fully realizing that I probably wouldn’t know half the songs they were going to play. So I cheated in order to tease myself: I went online and checked out some previous set lists from this tour and wouldn’t you know it, more than half of the songs in the list were ones I had never heard (I find it necessary to put a disclaimer in here right now because I know how crazy some Zappaheads can get: I am a Zappa fan, but not a fanatic. My preference when it comes to Zappa are more inline with his “serious” works vs. the “satire”, “improv”, and “humor” he often implemented into his music and shows. While I fully appreciate that aspect of his songwriting genius, I simply prefer(ed) to listen to him wail on the guitar while the Greatest Back-Up Band(s)-To-Ever-Walk-The-Face-Of-The-Earth went bat shit crazy behind him. Therefor, I am aware that my knowledge of his discography is limited yet still deeper than casual.)
I went to see a Zappa cover band a few years back (I won’t mention their name) and left after five songs. Not because they weren’t good (cause let’s face it, just being able to play one Zappa song–any Zappa song–makes you a pretty damn good musician in my book), but because it just wasn’t anywhere close to the real thing. It lacked authenticity. Dweezil Zappa heads up Zappa Plays Zappa, and Dweezil is as close to Frank as we as fans are ever going to get. It’s like watching Jason Bonham play drums: even if his last name wasn’t Bonham we’d still be impressed with his playing nonetheless. It just helps to alleviate any apprehension we have towards listening by saying to ourselves, “well, at least it’s his son playing!” While some children-of-famous-musicians go out of their way to avoid the shadows of their parents, Dweezil has embraced his legendary father’s music. Frank’s shadow is simply too long to avoid.
Right off the bat I knew the band would be good. How could they not be? I just wasn’t prepared for how good. Let’s start with Dweezil. Obviously we know the dude can play guitar (Franks Gibson SG to be exact). But come on, man, when did he get this good? (probably 20 years ago, I just wasn’t paying attention). I am rarely into the fast, shredding-type players (I appreciate Vai, Satriani, et al, but to me, it’s just dudes playing fast for other dudes to impress them with how fast they can play, dude.), but Dweezil inherited his father’s Coltrane-esque phrasing and sense of the musical moment. His guitar sounded sweet, he played it sweet, and he did his father’s music much justice. I thought during one of Dweezil’s (many) guitar solos, “Frank would be impressed.”
I’ve always said that you can take 8 bars of a Zappa song and any other band would make an entire song out of it. Within each song is basically 4-8 movements. The amount of concentration and memory it must take to perform a set of his music is mind-boggling. As a musician, when you watch other musicians that are this good, it makes you either want to quit playing altogether…or practice more. I won’t list each member of the band here (drummer, keyboard, bass, two multi-instrumentalists/vocalists) because you don’t need to hear about how great each of them were individually. They were absolutely amazing in every sense.
The highlight of the show was an improvisational moment when Dweezil called up a young girl from the audience who couldn’t have been older than 7. He asked her, “do you play any instruments?” to which she replied, “the flute.” Dweezil proceeded to put his guitar around her shoulder and stand behind her as he helped her “play” it. The audience roared. He turned the distortion to ten, cranked out some AC/DC-type rocker riff and the band picked up behind them. This little girl was jamming onstage with the band and we, the audience, ate it up. It was classic Zappa showmanship. Once she was done–and the standing ovation died down–he asked her, “so…still want to play the flute?” You think that girl doesn’t grow up to join a band??? Let’s hope.
There were so many insane musical moments throughout the show that it’s hard to point out any one. It’s such a profound experience when you witness such great musicianship in a live setting. I have always known that Zappa’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be complicated and confusing to the average listener. The odd rhythms and weird instrumentation (and even weirder, often hilariously satirical lyrics) assured he would never have a #1 hit. Parts rarely repeat themselves. Shit, time signatures rarely repeat themselves. It’s not “easy listening” by any account. Dweezil and his band did a fantastic job of keeping the musical visions of Frank alive, and judging by the near sold out crowd and numerous standing ovations, there are still plenty of people out there that appreciate the Zappa catalog. As hard as that is to imagine, it gives me hope knowing that some music fans still want to be challenged by the artists they listen to.