When Frank Zappa died prematurely at the age of just 52 in 1993, his body having been ravaged by undiagnosed prostate cancer, he was buried in an unmarked Hollywood grave alongside celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. Still giving interviews right to the last, Zappa was overt about not wanting to be remembered.
That eventuality seems unlikely if Dweezil Zappa has anything to do with it. Since 2006 his guitar-playing son has been touring his Zappa Plays Zappa show with a revolving cast of crack musicians performing his Dad’s music wherever there’s demand… but never down here at the end of the world until now.
When Zappa Plays Zappa first got going as the official purveyor of all things Frank for the Zappa Family Trust, I couldn’t help but feel that it was all a bit tame. Sanctioned entertainment often is, and while the ZFT’s matriarch (and Frank’s widow) Gail Zappa pulled the strings she would sue any other bands that formed to perform Frank’s music, while pushing Dweezil as the real, official deal.
Then the wheels fell off, and as Gail herself became terminally ill and died in 2015 with the two younger Zappa siblings given the reigns of the ZFT, there was inevitably a giant rift which pitched Dweezil and sister Moon Unit against Ahmet and Diva. And that’s why on his first New Zealand gig ever it’s not Zappa Plays Zappa but Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The Fuck He Wants (I’ve left the pretty asterisks and things out of the word ‘fuck’ because I believe that’s the way Frank would have wanted it), and you know what? Whether it’s the bitterness of the family feud or just that he’s growing up (Dweezil is now 48, which means he’s only four years younger than his Dad was when he died) but this new show/revised band seems to have given him an edge that he always seemed to lack before.
Not that Dweezil is Frank, and of course all of us hardcore FZ nuts really, really want him to somehow become Frank during the performance. But no amount of hoping and wishing is going to make that happen, so what we’re having to deal with tonight is a tribute show for a guy who hated tributes and wasn’t sentimental and always moved inexorably forward, experimental to the very end.
As tribute shows go however, this one forgoes the sentimentality and insists on focusing on a body of extraordinary musical works, and it does so by reanimating Frank Zappa’s music and giving it an adrenaline shot that successfully brings it into the 21st Century.
And don’t the crowd know it. The Bruce Mason Centre was packed with appreciative Zappa freaks who had clearly longed and waited to hear Frank’s music played live once more and probably never thought it would happen. There was a lot of white hair and many bald heads and signs of the fragility of age but also a smattering of younger fans and they were all so damn appreciative and happy to be in a room with fellow Zappa fans and away for a change from a world that doesn’t care. This was an audience ready to bellow requests and who clearly knew even the obscure songs that Dweezil would pull from the cannon and who would give multiple standing ovations during the course of this three-hour marathon that to me seemed more like 30 minutes.
Please excuse this extended preamble but all we’ve had in New Zealand forever (or for some, since Frank’s first and only performance here in 1976) are the records. Frank released a lot of records, and they’re uniquely multi-layered and therefore you can listen to them many, many times before you get even slightly sick of them but… Frank is dead and there are no more opuses lying in the archives and well, what would it sound like if son-of-Frank and his crack band attempted an idiosyncratic run-through of a bunch of career-spanning FZ songs?
Live, Frank’s music is reanimated and this particular group and this particular sequence of FZ songs make it sound like he was one heck of a funky mofo, and there’s a physicality to his songs that only really becomes apparent when the volume is cranked up and you see what the musicians are forcing themselves to do in the name of Frank.
FZ’s music was, of course, uniquely eclectic, and someone listening to the greasy doo-wop songs or the psych-freak stuff from ’66 or the modern classical/collage/sound manipulation of Uncle Meat or the cool jazz stylings of Hot Rats or the porno funk of Overnite Sensation or the jazz-fusion of One Size Fits All or the various orchestral projects or the intentionally cheesy songs of the early ‘80s or the electronic work of the mid-‘80s or his various guitar albums would have no right to demand Dweezil’s band traverse the stylistic gamut of his Dad’s work in one concert with one lineup.
But when you think of it, none of Frank’s individual bands/lineups even attempted to knit together the disparate strands the way Dweezil’s band is attempting, and mostly succeeding in doing, and there are times you think: with a six-piece band (one of whom just sings and another of whom mostly just plays trumpet and both of whom leave the stage for chunks of time) that’s often reduced to a four-piece could even hope to cope with Frank’s complex, notated compositions. And yet they do exceptionally well, most of the time.
There were flaws and first-night nerves (this is the very first night of Dweezil’s latest tour and the first with this lineup) and the sound mix was horribly toppy at times, especially where I sat in the ‘J’ line slap bang in the middle. Sadly the lead singer, Cian Coey, while sporadically amazing, just didn’t have the vocal authority that many of the compositions – on record sung usually by low-voiced men – demanded and the toppiness of the sound mix meant that she sounded shrill. That was exacerbated by song choices which emphasised vocals and were exceptionally busy. To be fair, some of those songs can even be hard to handle on record, but in the less than perfectly balanced sound of a one night stand it meant that the words/meaning of some of the songs was completely unintelligible: okay for those of us who knew all the words, but maybe not so to curious novices.
The drums were also too loud and Ryan Brown, while an at times dynamic player who certainly did well on much of the material but who spent too much time pretending he was the only one onstage rather than playing support. Looking alarmingly like a reject from Spinal Tap – not that that should go against him necessarily – he couldn’t seem to help splashing those cymbals (toppy mix, remember) and on some of the more complex passages where some delicate and very odd timings were required it sounded like he was just ploughing ahead in meat and potatoes fashion. Very delicately, fragrant and spicy meat and potatoes, but it seemed he wasn’t anywhere near the technician of FZ’s long-time favourite Chad Wackerman. And because the drums were so overbearingly loud, it was more difficult for the other instruments to cut through the mix.
But still, there’s a lot to like about this band and its energy and its approach to Frank’s music. While Dweezil himself sometimes cleaves too close to the recordings of certain songs (to the point where he repeats Frank’s dialogue from live performances) there’s a sense that the band are determined to have fun with the material, and that giving them some energy and spirit is more important than getting every single note just right.
The hardest aspect for me was Dweezil’s guitar. The thing is, he’s a really fine, gifted, dextrous instrumentalist but what he does with a guitar just doesn’t have Frank’s edge. And by that I mean that FZ loved making really nasty, unexpected sounds, and would often go places in live performance that were more about sonic exploration and reaching for some kind of instant composition than they were about guitar solos per se. Frank’s guitar sound and style was utterly unique and while any band can play one of his compositions if they’re good enough to give it a go and portray something of what Frank meant just by replicating the notes, no one is game to try the same thing with Frank’s guitar. In a way I feel sorry for Dweezil, because loads of Frank freaks desperately want him to ape his Dad’s playing. He really is a fine player but every time he solos on one of Frank’s songs I feel let down because he’s comparatively conventional in his approach, and it makes me wish he’d grown up playing vibraphone or something.
The good stuff? Well, I’ve mentioned some of that, but having three women in the band was definitely a blast. There was a different energy as a result and it was wonderful hearing those insane, often glaringly dirty lyrics come out of the mouths of the opposite sex. In this time when merely saying what you mean and meaning what you say and choosing direct words to say it with is frowned upon by the fun police, it was great to have the obvious revealed: that Zappa’s sexualised lyrics aren’t anti-female and that females can in fact reversion the songs to expel some of Frank’s machismo.
Keyboardist/saxophonist/vocalist Scheila Gonzalez (a keeper from previous versions of the band) was fantastic and helped give the band its energy and swing, while bass player Kurt Morgan played the square-headed nerd ala FZ’s favourite ‘80s four-string strangler Scott Thunes, and keyboardist/vocalist Chris Newton was an orchestra unto himself as he went from delicate piano to freaky synth squeals to whatever was required, all with a virtuosic gleam in his eye (and funny voices, too).
The song selection was eccentric, and may have been concocted to keep the show fresh for both Dweezil and audiences overseas who have seen him on multiple occasions. Having so many relatively minor or obscure songs in the set was on the one hand a risky proposition, but by the audience reaction they were well aware of just how many brilliant and unpredictable compositions can be found tucked away on those 70-something albums.
Examples? Well, there was ‘Let Me Take You To The Beach’, a delirious bubblegum-pop earworm from one of the FZ albums few ever talk about, Studio Tan (recorded sometime in the mid-‘70s but held up by a contractual dispute with Warner and eventually released in ’78). Then there was the insane metal-punk thrash of ‘I’m So Cute’, one of the many treasures on ‘79’s comeback album Sheik Yerbouti. Aussie trumpeter Kendal Cuneo’s screamed vocals on this were brilliant. Not to forget the acid-cut Spike Jones of ‘Cleetus Awreetus Arightus’ from the big band slam of Grand Wazoo (1972), a note-perfect rendition of this more-or-less instrumental that sadly, got the least enthusiastic applause of the night (apart from one rogue clapper – who could that have been?) You Are What You Is (1981) is another unjustly neglected piece from the Zappa discography, and the most sustained, vaguely conceptual sequence of ‘pop’ songs since We’re Only In It For The Money (1968). ‘Teenage Wind’ is the opening track and its social commentary on the mores of youth isn’t so very different to the three WOIIFTM tracks played tonight, ‘Harry You’re A Beast’, ‘Flower Punk’ and ‘Who Needs The Peace Corps?’ As good as they were however, the feeling persists that Dweezil is at his best when dealing with the ‘70s-era tracks he loves so much, most of which provide an excuse for some guitar play. There was a smattering of other 1960s songs and this band never quite catches their freak/hippy stench. No wonder, then, that the revved-up 1970s rearrangement of tunes like ‘Call Any Vegetable’ and ‘Son Of Orange County’ were performed.
A few Flo & Eddie-era tunes were included (‘What Will This Evening Bring Me This Evening’, ‘She Painted Up Her Face’, both from 200 Motels), presumably to provide vocal meat for the singers, but somewhat predictably the real highlights and the tracks that Dweezil and band felt most at ease playing were the phenomenal ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘Pojama People’ (One Size Fits All, 1975), ‘Black Page #2’ (which never existed in a studio incarnation but debuted on New York, 1976), and two brilliant but totally contrasting songs from Joe’s Garage (1979): the gorgeous guitar instrumental ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ and the rictus smile of ‘Keep It Greasy’.
Earlier in the evening I was lucky to get to see the soundcheck, where a small congregation of Zappa worshippers and well-wishers gathered in the first two rows to see the band battle with sound gremlins and conduct a mini-rehearsal, after which Dweezil signed autographs and chatted amiably with fans. It was really something to witness the group in this relaxed pre-show setting and the dynamic (conversational, problem-solving and musical) between the musicians.
But back to the main event. Dweezil Zappa playing what the fuck he wanted was really Dweezil performing what he thought the fans would like, and they did. If I was to rate the show on a Zappa scale – which exists in its own universe – I would probably give it an average 5 out of 10, because it’s not Frank and it lacked both the spit polish and ceaseless creativity Zappa senior brought to everything he did. But this is the real world, and Dweezil and his crack band playing his Dad’s music is at least an 8 out of 10 compared to the best of the rest.
Dweezil and co are keeping the flame alive – a flame that shouldn’t be allowed to go out – and for that, we salute you.
- If you’d like to see more of Grant Stantiall’s photo library of this gig, visit his photo blog here.
- If you’d like to read Dweezil’s interview with Gary Steel, check it out here.
- Don’t forget to search for more Frank Zappa content on Witchdoctor by our esteemed editor and Zappa freak Gary Steel.