Friday, January 2, 2009

Review: Zappa Plays Zappa, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, Dec. 31, 2008

Here's my review of the Zappa Plays Zappa show at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, on Dec. 31, 2008. But first, some art by Ward Shelley – a piece titled "Frank Zappa Chart ver. 1."

Dweezil and his fine ensemble offered an enjoyable evening of the Frank Zappa tunes we all love at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on New Year’s Eve 2008/9.

To hear this immortal music performed live, on such a grand scale by musicians of this caliber, is heartening. It may be decades before society catches up to Zappa’s genius. For now, it is kept alive by the beleaguered Zappa community – the listeners, musicians, bloggers and even a disc jockey or two – and, of course, by the dedicated work of his son.

Having been to two ZPZ concerts now, though, I’ve figured something basic out: even though the song list might be similar, you don’t go to ZPZ shows for the same reasons you used to go to to Frank Zappa shows.
The show

The show began with Dweezil saying that the band’s flight had been delayed and that they hadn’t had time for a thorough sound check, so “crazy things” might happen, even apart from the planned crazy things. And then they began.

Frank, and other bands with ambitious, that is to say acrobatic repertoire, like maybe Jethro Tull, often start their shows with something less demanding, to sort of limber up. Not Dweez and the gang. First up was “Inca Roads.” Thankfully, Dweezil did his own guitar solo, not replicating Frank’s, which is already well burned into all our minds.

Next was “Cosmick Debris,” with drummer Joe Travers on lead vocals. For the guitar solo, Dweezil actually unstrapped his SG and handed it to Ray White (rather ceremoniously, I thought, and after the spot for the solo had already begun). Ray did good, then handed the SG back to Dweezil for an outing. At one point he traded licks with Scheila Gonzales, and that was enjoyable.

Next, “Magic Fingers,” played at a slightly more sedate pace than Frank used to do it. In fact, most of the songs were at a more stately tempo than I remember Frank doing them. Then, “Carolina Hard Core Ecstacy,” during which, I thought, Mr. Travers began to play with more verve and gusto.

Then Dweezil invited the audience to sing along on the next song, but said that could be a challenge since it contained “4,000 words of text.” You guessed it: “Billy the Mountain.” I just did a word count on the transcription available here, and it’s actually 2,376 words. But close enough.

As a bonus, Billy was sung, mostly, by Billy Hulting, percussionist. That’s logical, since most of the vaudeville bits don’t require his sounds. Various bandmembers took turns doing Studebaker Hawk, to vast hilarity.

Overanalytical journalistic wankage begins here

Yes, it was all enjoyable, fun and entertaining, make no mistake. But, and not to get too “journalistic” about it, but Dweezil’s approach to “Billy” is where the essential riddle/conundrum/philosophical glitch with ZPZ comes into play. The performance was – with some refreshing exceptions – a carbon copy replication of the Flo & Eddie-based performance on Just Another Band From L.A. Even down to the little asides that Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan tossed off on the spur of the moment in Pauley Pavilion 36 years ago.

OK, well, that’s one way to go... except that, mercifully, there were some contemporizing adaptations. “Chief Reddin” became “Corey Feldman,” and instead of “Zubin Mehta,” it was “Gary Coleman.” Also, the band did something really great with extending the big “Studebaker Hawk” theme song. It was unexpected and really delightful that they mined those passages for more fun and frolic.

I simply don’t understand the concept of religiously replicating the way Frank performed a song on one particular album or tour decades ago. Even less do I understand taking that approach with the most ephemeral nuances of live performance in the original recording, but then, in the same song, massively revising a whole passage like the Studebaker Hawk song.

The main reason the cloning-of-old-arrangements-and-performances approach jars me is that it isn’t something Frank ever did, and I just don’t associate that kind of slavish adherence to the established as being part of the Zappa ethos.

Think about it –did you ever hear Frank do a song the same way twice? Even from night to night on the same tour, he mixed up the arrangements, tempos and certainly the order in which songs were performed.

To be fair, Dweezil did subvert the dominant paradigm to some mild degree. He “played the band” with hand signals at times, so that was a plus. But never did it produce the results Frank’s mischievous meddling did, which is understandable, since there was only one him.

When, after the previous ZPZ show I attended, I encouraged Dweezil to add a couple of his songs to the show (and he has some damn great ones), he dismissed it out of hand. For what it’s worth, I previously opined about this here.

It seems to me that Dweezil is too humble about his own compositional skills and perhaps too reverent of Dad’s stuff. I will presume to give him this advice, because I don’t believe that Frank thought his work was something that had to be entombed in one state for ever and ever: “Don’t you act like it’s made of gold.” In other words, bend it, play with it, tweak it. Hell, you’re a Zappa – no one will do reinterpret Frankness better than you. Oh, and don’t sell your own compositions short. They’re lovely, and Frankworthy.

Journalistic wankage ends there

Next was “Flakes,” with Dweezil by now playing a white Stratocaster. I didn’t particularly care for Scheila’s version of the faux-Dylan part, only because it was in such an exaggerated caricature of a voice that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Plus she was too close to the mic and it overdrove and sounded harsh and gravelly.

This was followed by “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes,” always a crowd pleaser. Then "Bamboozled By Love," done partly in double-time, an interesting choice. Then “King Kong,” which was loaded with band showcase solos. At one point, Les Claypool came out in a longcoat and chimp mask and played what looked like a segment of a bed frame with a string attached to it. He beat upon this device [since identified as a "Whamola" – h/t Clenn] with a drumstick while modulating the tension on the string and sort of dancing around as the band provided a soundtrack. It was during KK that Dweez conducted the band a la Frank.

For me, the standout solo was that of guitarist Jamie Kime. As at the previous ZPZ show I attended, he offered some truly original and intense sounds on his guitar. It was deeply impressive – this guy is a major talent.

Last song was “Willie The Pimp,” and it was red hot. The encore was “Muffin Man,” always the feel-good hit of the winter, or summer, or whatever season it’s played in.

And then, about 10:30 p.m., it was done. The road crew then hurriedly dismantled the ZPZ stage setup to make room for Les Claypool, and I was disappointed that Dweezil et al didn’t hang out to talk to the fans like last time. But there was so much feverish activity going on on the stage that they probably would have been in the way.

We didn’t stay for Les, because I had to drive 300-plus miles back to Arcata early the next morn in shitty weather.

A few observations

If you haven’t been to a “big rock show” lately, note that they have changed in one respect. Audience members now fuss with their cell phones throughout the concert, taking pictures of each other and the band, texting, checking their e-mail and even surfing the Web. Sometimes you look down at the stage (from Row R in our case) and the foreground is filled with literally dozens of little glowing screens.

And then there are the self-absorbed dickheads. Thankfully, no one right behind me was bellowing “WWWUUUHHHHH!” or talking throughout the solos this time, as has happened at lots of other shows.

Also, while the show was well attended, there were plenty of empty seats around us, including just about the whole row in front of me. That was a stroke of luck; others weren’t so fortunate. Several rows down, there were people wearing fucking top hats, which I’m sure were very fashionable and impressive to each other, but if you had to sit behind them, not so much. And yet they didn’t even take them off, apparently oblivious to the viewshed impacts the comical headgear was having on the people seated behind them.

There was also a large man in about Row L who was frequently moved to stand up and dance in place during a number of tunes. You could see the people behind him leaning this way and that to see what was going on on stage. It never fails to amaze me how self-centered and inconsiderate some people can be, even of fellow Zappa fans. Personally, there’s no way I could not be conscious of hindering someone else’s enjoyment if I was blocking their view or making noise. Captain Considerate, that’s me. Actually not, but it’s not in me to be a lout at a concert.

I didn't buy any of the ZPZ swag because it looked tacky. They didn't have any tour books or hats, and $30 for a T-shirt would be an inexcusable extravagance, even if it does say "Zappa" in ugly typography.

Also, I wish there was a way to have Ahmet be involved in all this. He's fun.

The takeaway

As I said, you wouldn’t go to a ZPZ show for the same reasons you went to Frank Zappa shows. I went to Frank concerts to be dazzled, surprised, shocked and to laugh my ass off. Zappa concerts always included moments when you turned to your friend who you came with and just looked at each other in slack-jawed wonder at the sheer originality of the music and the thought process behind it.

What I experienced on New Year’s Eve was an elegantly performed, loving tribute to some of the most clever and engaging music that I’m aware of. But hearing it performed in ways we’re already well familiar with means that many of those key shock-and-awe elements of Zappa concert enjoyment just aren’t there.

The other thing that was missing (except for Jamie Kime’s bit) was the intensity of a Frank show. Dweezil’s band was hot, but they didn’t burn. And there’s another thing separate and apart from that, something which Frank’s bands had an abundance of: spark. The ability to turn on a dime, with every note distinct. By comparison, the ZPZ band kind of lumbers through their paces.

Know what I mean? Even the amazing Joe Travers didn’t put everything into it that I know he has. He played with considerably more devotion to the cause at the tiny Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville with Mike Keneally in May, 2005 – for two dozen people. Joe was white-hot that night, but just workaday awesome for the thousands at the ZPZ show. Sorry, I’m spoiled.

The whole ZPZ thing is just a different approach to Frank music, and one which I suppose is fully valid unto itself. But would I drive 300 miles each way to experience this again? Unless Mr. Vai, Mr. Bozzio or – and this will never happen – Mr. Keneally were to be involved, probably not.