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 email@example.com). 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.