Wednesday, August 29, 2007

ZPZ Berkeley 2007, Part 2

Dweezil Zappa and Zappa's Grubby Chamber host Kevin Hoover at the Aug. 20, 2007 Zappa Plays Zappa/Tour de Frank show at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Photo by Ron Antaki

As Frank Zappa fans, ours is sometimes a lonely lot. Oh sure, these days we can connect with the virtual FZ community online, but that hasn't always been the case. And, day to day, unless you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has an uncommonly high statistical density of Frank fans, as I do, it can be disheartening. After all, most commercial music is, and probably always has been, unredeeming sludge. At least it used to be human-crafted sludge, but now, with all the frightening little tools science has made available, it's largely machine-generated dreck designed pursuant to the dictates of today's bold new breed of entertainment executives.

And so it was with considerable gratification that I observed clumps of Zappa fans headed toward the Berkeley Community Theatre Monday night, Aug. 20. Frank diaspora from all over Northern California converged on the site, and it was quite heartening to behold.

I was hoping, actually expecting to see some of my old friends with whom I used to attend Zappa concerts. But it was not to be. Either they weren't there, or we've all become so decrepit that we didn't recognize each other. That worked out OK, though, as I did meet up with some new friends at the show. And there was one person I knew – Dimitrius, a former Arcata Post Office employee who brought good music to that facility and with whom I could discuss matters Frank.

I also noticed many obvious parent/child attendees. I assume these resulted from the parents saying, "Now you'll see why I listen to this music all the time..." and dragging the kid along.

On with the show. As the theatre slowly filled, I cruised the stage to check out the setup. Lots of guitars, and Joe's drum set looked like a castle of drums, so ripe with potential. Cymbals on drum sets at major concerts always look so impossibly shiny.

Eventually Dweezil and the band came out. His stage presence is a lot different than Frank's. Dweezil is much more low-key, even when delivering the trademark Zappa wit. A guy yelled out, "ZAPPA!" To which Dweezil deftly replied, "Yes, it's a Zappa show. You're in the right auditorium." That went over well.

The softspokenness continued through the show. At one point Dweezil introduced a song – sorry, can't remember which one – by saying, "Now we're going to play this song."

It's not that he was uncommunicative. When someone called out for "Watermelon In Easter Hay," Dweezil explained that that song was "too close to the surface." He said that attempting to perform it "would probably make my head explode," but that maybe someday it will be possible. That's interesting. While Watermelon didn't come about during Frank's final years, I can easily see how, given the emotional nature of the song, it could well be emotionally trying for Dweez to play those particularly poignant notes and channel Frank on it.

Summarizing the Dweezil stage-affect situation, my sense is that he is filled with reverence and appreciation for his father's music and doesn't wish to intrude himself too much into it. In any case, he's totally natural on stage, and the music certainly says just about all that needs to be said. And he was quite voluble during the improv song, "Don't Let the Raccoon Scratch Your Face."

All in all the band performed some 22 songs (see Part 1). We've all been to concerts that left us feeling shortchanged by the short length, or lack of effort/energy. Not this time. The music was passionately performed, fully involving and went on nearly three hours. I clocked it at roughly two hours and 45 minutes.

Following the splendidly fulfilling show, people began to filter out of the auditorium. That seemed like an odd choice, since some of the musicians could be seen lingering at the frnt of the stage, talking to attendees. But, people do have to go home and pay babysitters.

I went ahead and wound my way through the exiting crowd, down to the stage. I reached it as Joe Travers was waving bye-bye, but Dweezil himself was there, chatting with fans and signing everything handed to him.

It was very pleasant, commiserating with Dweezil. he was in no hurry, very relaxed and open to conversation. At first, a few dozen fans pressed against the stage, offering praise, suggestions, or just watching.

I told him that I do a Zappa radio show in Humboldt County and asked him to consider being on it. He said maybe he would. I'm sure lots of people ask him for things (a guy next to me asked to be in the band) and he obviously can't agree to everything requested of him.

But here's a weird one. I told him the show is called "Zappa's Grubby Chamber," and he wasn't aware of the term! But, but, but... He stood there above me, signing someone's t-shirt on his knee, shook his head and said, "I don't know what that is..." He's never see the hunk o' plaster in the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen?

Meanwhile, I encouraged him to take the music and make it his. It wasn't the first time he's heard it. He said, in so many words, that people suggest often that, but that he wouldn't feel right altering Frank's versions.

Here we have a basic philosophical dilemma. For any given song, does one select one of Frank's interpretations and replicate that, or do you do what Frank himself would have done – use those songs as starting points for reinterpretation? Dweezil has obviously chosen the former, feels very strongly about it and carries that method out very well. He did say that he hopes to tour with ZPZ annually. I have to think that eventually, he'll feel comfortable with bringing forth his own twists on the tunes.

I also suggested he do some of his music, but again, he said something to the effect that he wouldn't dream of inserting his songs into the Frank-music mix. Personally, I've always liked Dweezil's music, from "My Mother Is a Space Cadet" up to "Automatic." I particularly enjoy "Shampoohorn" and "Music for Pets." I know some Frank fans hold Dweeztunes in lesser regard, but after this show, I think it's fairly incontestable that he gets FZ music as much as anyone and is capable of his own greatness.

He said the band now knows 70 or so songs. I'm sure they know them well, too – just like Frank's band. But you know what? I personally think that this band actually comes together better than some of the units Frank had in the early 1980s. That's not saying anything about the talents of any individual musicians, just the the coherence of the band as a unit.

Dweezil was nice enough to sign all the swag I'd bought in the lobby – the tour book, hat, pink panties and ticket. Between autographs, Dweez knelt at the edge of the stage to be in cell phone pictures with some of us, including the doughy specimen depicted here. Then what would happen is that the fans would have to exchange e-mail addresses and business cards in order to convey the pictures to each other later.

Photo by Ron Antaki

At one point, I heard someone behind me saying, "Is Kevin here?" I turned around and said, "I'm Kevin." It turned out to be Ron Antaki, a guy who sends me cryptic e-mail messages of Zappa appreciation during the ZGC radio shows (at He was real nice and took a bunch of pics on his RazR. I also met Yusef Malenky, who took a pic on his phone that I haven't seen yet. And another guy right next to me turned out to be Steve Bruhn from McKinleyville, right next to Arcata.

Eventually, everything had been signed and said, the crowd dwindled and Dweezil took his leave. The fans left towards cars and BART, chatting. I went up to some guys in Zappa regalia at the BART station and asked them what they thought of the concert, and they turned out to be listeners to the radio show too – at least when they're in Humboldt County!

On the way home to Humboldt a few days later, I hung a right off the freeway in Petaluma and went to Lagunitas Brewing Co., home of the Zappa-branded beers. Tony Magee kindly interrupted a meeting he was in to come out and meet me and have his pic taken. Then he gave me a case of Kill Ugly Radio beer! So that was certainly worth the side trip.

Tony Magee of Lagunitas Brewing Co. Photo by KLH

So, all in all, I attended a wonderful Zappa show at one of the same places I used to do that, got to meet and converse somewhat substantively with Dweezil, met a bunch of cool fans and got some free beer! I'd say it was a productive trip. You know, I still feel the happy glow from that concert.

Oh, and I got weeks worth of radio show and blog ideas out of it, too. So on the Aug. 31 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, I'll pick up with the ZPZ set list where we left off last week. What with all the versioning (which people tell me they enjoy as much as I do), we only made it through the first six songs. We'll pick up with Suzy Creamcheese, and see how far we can get.

Keep those calls and e-mails coming, folks, and don't forget to comment right here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

ZPZ Berkeley 2007, Part 1

My ticket and tour book, autographed by Dweezil.

Monday, August 20, I attended the Zappa Plays Zappa/Tour De Frank show at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Here are my impressions and experiences.

To do this properly, I have to separate it into two parts, maybe three: First, the core experience, the music. Then, aftermath and commentary.

The Music
These are the songs the band performed, in the order they played them.

The Dog Breath Variations: If there was any doubt that this eight-piece orchestra could bring off a Frank composition not just adequately, but with flair and spirit, the opening song banished it. They captured every incidental delight and nuance of this classic tune, and it was utterly fascinating to behold.

City of Tiny Lights: Featuring Ray White. What more could you want?

Advance Romance:
A colossal, sprawling and spirited treatment.

Dumb All Over: Featuring Frank on vocals, projected on the screen in back of the band. Immaculately synchronized and completely riveting.

What's New In Baltimore: Dweezil mentioned the recent "Frank Zappa Day" in Baltimore, and said that the only thing better would be if they make it an annual event.

Carolina Hard Core Ecstacy: Always one of my favorites, and a cordial powerhouse of a song.

Suzy Creamcheese/Brown Shoes Don't Make It/America Drinks & Goes Home: Dweezil dedicated this to the fans who have been with Frank since the days of Freak Out! and Absolutely Free. And during "America Drinks," Gail Zappa made an appearance as The Waitress!

Pygmy Twylyte: The epic version, as performed on YCDTOSA Vol. II, The Helsinki Concert. I just played this last week on the show. Another consummate rendering.

Dupree's Paradise: A vehicle for the band to show off their individual talents. As each took their turn, fragments of other Frank songs were inserted as backing vehicles. I heard "Packard Goose" in there, among other tunes. All were A+. I must say, Jamie Kime's guitar solo was a truly jarring and innovative standout, in the best Frank tradition. Joe Travers, you are extraordinary.

Don't Let the Raccoon Scratch Your Face: Dweezil asked the audience for words to be used as the basis for an improv. (He also suggested the possibility of a dance contest on stage, but that was not to be.) I couldn't ear what was yelled out, but Dweezil said it was nonsense words, so he suggested "Don't let the raccoon scratch your face." And with that, the band launched into a bluesy, very Zappaesque piece with Ray inventing a scenario around the phrase. It was great to see them be spontaneous and take risks, as that's what Frank was all about.

Uncle Remus: Lots of people sang along, me included.

Willie the Pimp: Again, a song I played last week on the show in response to a street musician's comments.

Joe's Garage:
A warm, sentimental song. This included the only flub of the night, though other attendees I talked to didn't catch it and I wonder if I was hallucinating. At one point, if I remember correctly, as Ray sang the sixth verse, (People seemed to like our song...), about midway through Dweezil cut in with the following verse, sort of singing over Ray and advancing the song ahead to that point. Ray looked surprised, and gave sort of a "What I do wrong?" look, but the song concluded without further incident. Like I said, others didn't notice this, so I don't know. And in the grand scheme of things, who gives a fuck, anyway?

Wind Up Working In A Gas Station: Another fave of mine, brought off in perky fashion.

San Ber'dino: Joyous, full of musicality.

The Illinois Enema Bandit: Featuring Ray White! Dweezil's solo started subtly, just like Frank's did, and built up to cataclysmic proportions.

Wild Love: I've always loved this song for its mixture of insight into human sexual ritual behavor and musical complexity, which is sheer Frankness. Impeccable without being careful or academic in any way.

Yo' Mama:
As excellent as the concert had been up to this point, the entire experience (and, it seemed, the Berkeley Community Theatre itself) was elevated onto another plane with this song. (Song – what a trivial word to describe this soulful expression.)

I've never dwelt much on Yo' Mama. I like it, but I realize now that I haven't appreciated it. As you know, it's not fast; there's no tinkertoy discursions or huge jokes to distinguish it.

But during that atmospheric portion when Frank/Dweezil goes off on guitar against a rich harmonic backdrop... ladies and gentlemen, it became a spiritual experience. Dweezil's guitar spoke like a voice – Frank's voice. Our voice.

I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and even the memory of it makes me feel a piquant mixture of beauty/love/sadness/eternity that's all mixed up with appreciation of the Zappa ethos as conveyed by Frank, and now, so masterfully, by Dweezil. I'll never hear that song the same way again.

Cosmick Debris: Featuring Frank from 1973 on guitar. Another amazing display of synchronization. And, 30-plus years later, Frank shreds with the best of today's guitar gymnasts, but of course with the benefit of the sheer intelligence that runs through everything he did. There's that one point in this solo - people who saw the show will know what I'm talking about - when Frank just seizes the guitar and wrings a petulant frenzy of naughty notes out of it. What the hell was that?

G-Spot Tornado: Unbelievable. Who needs computers to make impossible music? This thing was a multi-level tour de Frank-force brought off with a power and precision that was simply breathtaking.

Muffin Man: A great way to end the show, with the guttural graunch of a beloved Zappa classic that rocked beyond all reason.

On the August 24, 2007 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll replicate the set list with the versions of the songs Dweezil and the band played. Feel free to call or e me with your comments, especially any reviews from the Berkeley or other shows.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

ZPZ Berkeley, August 20, 2007

My brain is swimming with the elegant, ferocious, soaring, profane, powerful and lovingly executed Frank Zappa music I heard tonight.

It was quite an experience.

I met Dweezil after the show. He was very generous with his time, sharing thoughts with fans and discussing his approach to the music.

I also met no less than four people who listen to Zappa's Grubby Chamber! I'm really inspired, and have all sorts of new ideas for the show.

After putting out the newspaper last night, then driving down here and seeing the concert, my brain needs down time to process everything.

More later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Conventional Wisdom/Indigenous Soul

Indigenous Soul: Daryl, some guy who wanted to be in the pic and his doomed kitten, and Jay.

Unlike populist rabble-rousers, I've never been one to venerate the supposed collective intelligence of "the people." I mean, look at some of the political decisions that vaunted fount of wisdom, "we the people" have made lately.

Being in the news business, I all too painfully know how ill-informed people generally are, and how low their threshold is for accepting rumor and folklore as fact. Essentially, people believe what they want to believe regardless of the factual information available to them. They cherry-pick fact-fragments that reinforce their pre-existing views. That's how it is and how it's always going to be.

As you know, popular perceptions of Frank Zappa are laden with misinformation, fueled to a great extent by media weasels like myself. I'd go so far as to say that there has probably never been a more misunderstood popular musician.

And yet, I don't see what's so hard to understand about him at all. Frank seems like a logical, extremely intelligent person who happened to be unfettered by the illusions and false assumptions that keep most of us from realizing our potential. No wonder he confuses "the people."

The mythology persists. I've had people tell me they smoked big fat doobies with Frank, and worse. I'm not going to repeat some of the more pernicious memes, and if I ever read the description of Frank as "Rock's Rasputin" again, I'm going to have a major white-guy hissyfit and throw the magazine across the room, scaring my old cat.

This past week I went out on the streets of Arcata asking people – mostly street people – what they know or think they know about Frank. What I got was a heady mix of genuine insight and fairly appalling misinformation, plus some funny moments.

I recorded it all, and will play some of the clips on the August 17 show. One is an interview with a couple of guys named Jay and Daryl who have a musical unit of sorts called "Indigenous Soul." They even performed a song for me, called "Kelly." It was, to plug in some lame-ass music critic terminology here, an acoustic/rap fusion featuring Jay on guitar and Daryl on mouth percussion and attempted harmonies.

Was their song Zappa-influenced? I'd say yes, in that Frank stretched boundaries and made imagination permissible, so while "Kelly" wouldn't have been something Frank came up with, it's not inconceivable that it wouldn't exist in the same form without Zappa having done what he did. Anyway, you can decide Friday night when I play the song.

Apart from Indigenous Soul, there were some other folks with remarkable insights and whatever the opposite of that is. Suffice to say that among us walk many people who have a working knowledge of Frank, and can name several of his songs/albums/musicians/slogans.

We are not alone.

Friday, August 10, 2007

What's New in Baltimore?

Well, among other things, Thursday was Frank Zappa Day there.

Apparently the mayor read a proclamation at the ZPZ show:

The Mayor’s proclamation, to be presented at the concert reads, in part, “The City of Baltimore is proud of its rich musical heritage, and is honored to claim the prolific composer, musician, author, and film director Frank Zappa as a native of our fair city; and

WHEREAS, Frank Zappa’s artistry involved many musical genres, including rock, jazz, electronic, and symphonic music, and his lasting impact has left an indelible mark on the art and all those who attempt to follow in his footsteps; and

WHEREAS, Frank Zappa has received world-wide recognition for his talents and innovation and defense of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States of America; and

WHEREAS, representing the Zappa Family, Dweezil Zappa is here today to embody his father’s music and legacy on stage for the first time in Baltimore, making this an appropriate day to honor Frank Zappa’s memory and his many great accomplishments.”

Dweezil’s self-imposed mission is to bring Frank Zappa’s music back to the live concert stage, explaining, “I think my Dad's music deserves to be heard by a wider audience. I really think he's been misunderstood for far too long, which brings me back to why I'm doing this: I'm so in awe of his accomplishments and want more and more people to know about him, and I think the best way for people to first discover his music is on a visceral level in a live situation. I think you have to be confronted with the complexity and the beautiful subtlety of all of it to fully appreciate the artistry of it."

What I want to know is, why does our mainstream culture only appreciate greatness like Frank's posthumously?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Back to Berkeley

Got my tickets yesterday for Zappa Plays Zappa at the Berkeley Community Theatre August 20. It'll be great to go to a Zappa show there again. The last time was 1981.

I saw the "Call Any Vegetable" video on the ZPZ website. It's a surprising choice, that they replicate the Just Another Band From L.A. rendition of the song, right down to the accidental nuances of Flo & Eddie's vocal performances from long, long ago.

I do hope that the show isn't solely in "tribute" mode, re-doing all the songs as though they were frozen in time. Frank never did that – he changed songs around massively from tour to tour and night to night. Surely Dweezil is cognizant of that, and I hope the band injects some originality and spontaneity into the show.

Back in 1988, as Frank and the Most Unhappy Band You Never Heard In Your Life were touring, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. (later joined by Liza Minelli) did their "Rat Pack" tour. I'm a lot more tolerant now, but still, that type of music and their whole culture is anathema to me.

But what I really hated about that type of concert event was that it was just a Greatest Hits exhibition – a smirking run-through of past glories. Not that there's anything wrong with it, I suppose, when you're dealing with lounge music. But with Frank's repertoire, I'd not even consider approaching it that way, and neither would Frank.

That said, I'm going to go with an open mind. Even if they do ultra-familiar versions, it'll still be the best FZ tribute band ever.

So, for the Aug. 10 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, I'll play radically different versions of FZ songs – ones that Frank morphed massively between studio and live performance, including "Call Any Vegetable," "Tell Me You Love Me," "Trouble Every Day," "Zoot Allures" and whatever you, today's concerned Frank Zappa fan, might suggest.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Zappa's Drummers

No, I wasn't one. But I played one back in "the day." (Please don't ask what day that was – suffice to say that this shot was taken when I was 18, and the U.S. was still making moon landings.)

For a drummer, Zappa music is SO fun to play along with. I'd pop on the headphones, put my scratchy copy of Just Another Band From L.A. on and emulate Aynsley Dunbar's parts for 20 minutes. To this day, that album and many others are embedded in my muscle memory (I know, I know, there's no such thing, but whatever).

At the time, it just didn't seem like there could be anyone better than Aynsley. But as we know, Frank's music has a way of bringing out the best of whatever great musicians he has in the band at the time, reflecting their talents and musical character. So when Ralph Humphrey, then Chester Thompson came along, it didn't seem like anyone else could fit the music better.

I remember attending my first Zappa concert and seeing Ralph and Chester together, and it bent my brain. Some musicians are inspired by phenomenal demonstrations of musical prowess. Me, I was just intimidated. That's probably why I never ascended into the professional realm. (I did do a couple of things with my bands, Think Tank and the Trilobites, that I'm not ashamed of. Maybe I'll post samples someday.)

Then came the Terry Bozzio era, and all bets were off. The guy was explosive beyond belief. Again Frank had located a huge talent and given him a platform to excel. Can you really imagine anyone else playing on Sheik Yerbouti?

Then, the eight-armed polyrhythmic monster Vinnie Colaiuta took the drummer's throne, and yet another new dimension in drumming was at hand. While I love all the Frank drummers, if I had to pick just one, it would be Vinnie. That guy... There's an in-the-moment immediacy to his playing that's just unrivaled. In my booklet, anyway. As he walked to his car after one of the Santa Monica shows featured on Tinseltown Rebellion, I stupidly asked Vinnie how he could play with such polyrhythmic complexity, as if there could be any answer to that besides talent and lots of practice. He was nice, and said something along the lines of, "I just do it."

To me, David Logeman was the first break in the ascending curve of drummer awesomeness. It's not that he isn't a great drummer; after all, he was able to play Frank's music. But no, he wasn't a Terry or Vinnie. I heard at the time that Frank had trouble locating a drummer for the 1980 tour (if I had time to do research, I'm sure I'd turn up details). I heard that David was the 54th one to audition. When Mike Keneally was in Arcata one time, I mentioned to him that David's performances were "workmanlike," and Mike immediately agreed with this characterization, repeating the term. I remember one show when David made a slight but discernible mistake on the complicated middle part of "Jumbo, Go Away," and Frank abruptly stopped the show, saying, "Logeman, that's inexcusable!" and making the band start over. (It wasn't as cordial as when he did that with Chester on "Montana" on YCDTOSA Vol. II. I guess he went on the play with Jan & Dean?!? Finally, I went to Disney's California Adventure a few years ago and there at the entrance was David and his Surf City All-Stars on a portable stage. They had a little thing where David took a drum out amid the spectators and had them attempt to play the solo on "Wipeout." Of course it was cute to see kids have a moment in the sun as a drummer, and yeah, OK, I stepped forward and gave it a try. After the fun, I mentioned to David that "That was easier than playing 'Charlie's Enormous Mouth,'" and he looked slightly startled that anyone would remember that song. I wanted to talk to him more, but he and the band were subsequently towed away, still playing on the portable stage, behind a big gate and I never got the opportunity.

Finally came the Chad Wackerman era. At first I wasn't that impressed with Chad. I thought he was kind of Logeman-perfunctory and stiff with the parts, and his drum sound seemed thin, with a "papery" snare drum. But he evolved mightily, and approached Vinnie-ish levels on The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. His drums sounded really great on that album, too.

As for Jimmy Carl Black, well, all I can say is that his work never inspired me very much. I don't think he was very happy playing things outside the blues/bar band envelope. And I didn't like the things he said about Frank when he was in the Grandmothers. I went and saw them at a club in Hayward, Calif. on Halloween, 1981, the same night that Frank was on MTV. The Grandmothers liked to say that Frank had ripped off their ideas and wouldn't let them play to their fullest potential, and yet, all they did was play carbon copies of things that were on Uncle Meat, etc., the way Frank had arranged them.

I had the opportunity to interview and do a newspaper story on Arthur Trip in the early 1990s. he was a chiropractor in McKinleyville, Calif., at the time. He'd given up drums and percussion, and has now moved on.

So, for the Aug. 3 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, I'll focus on some of the great drumming and drummers on Frank Zappa music. Feel free as always to send in any relevant requests. And if you have any awesome insights, call in and we'll talk about it one the air.