Zappa Plays Zappa at the Roxy — Opening Night

by Casey Dolan

On the 35th anniversary of his father’s recorded stand at the Roxy (“Roxy & Elsewhere”), Dweezil Zappa took his fine ensemble, Zappa Plays Zappa,  to that venue for a four-night stand of his own. Wednesday night was the opening gig and it was an occasion which elicited much thought about pere and fils.

Zappa Plays Zappa is riding high right now with a Grammy nomination (Best Rock Instrumental Performance) for its version of “Peaches En Regalia,” perhaps the most well-known Frank Zappa composition other than the hit singles of “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” A good reason for that recognition is the high quality of the musicianship in the band; it is uniformly excellent. It would have to be, given the nature of Frank’s compositions and the personnel of his own bands. And it is hardly a tribute band, as Dweezil pointed out last night, but more like the ongoing work of a son discovering and celebrating his father.

There were some surprises Wednesday night, but the biggest one was Dweezil himself. He has ascended to become one of the world’s truly astonishing guitarists, surpassing even his father’s commendable work. It’s a scalar style, mixing modes and going for those highly emotive bends so beloved by metal and blues players (but mercifully without the physical melodrama). The solos were neatly paced, alternating between thoughtful sustained notes and brilliantly executed flash riffing. Unfortunately, the stamp of mentor Steve Vai is heard in many places (thankfully, Dweezil doesn’t attempt Vai’s squeaks, squawks and dive-bombing) and it would be a good thing if Dweezil could just…let…that…go. Vai has always been the master of guitar arrogance and Dweezil seems a more humble fellow. Other discernible influences are Wayne Krantz (the strange intervallic jumps), Alan Holdsworth (the liquidity) and, of course, his dad (that previously mentioned scalar style). It would be nice to hear more chording (Krantz and Holdsworth, once again, are excellent sources for that), but nothing can take away from the fact that nearly all of the solos Wednesday night were thrilling.

And this could be said for nearly everyone else in the band. They all had moments to shine in the set, some more than others. Scheila Gonzalez had several on tenor and alto sax (and one bop tenor solo was particularly extraordinary), but second guitarist Jamie Kime is criminally neglected. Kime’s one solo during some extended variations on an extremely fast “Pound for a Brown” was a passionate set highlight and made me wonder why the hell he was hiding for most of the rest of the set (but, then, remember that Dweezil is the other guitarist and leads the band). Vocalist Ray White sang an emotive, sweaty lead on most of the tunes (although everyone had a chance to step up to the mike). Aaron Arntz demonstrated how nasty an organ can really sound (and strange keyboard sounds is a well-regarded Frank Zappa tradition). Billy Hulting had the unenviable task of following the impossible tradition of Art Tripp and Ruth Underwood on percussion and marimba, as well as being principal narrator during “Billy the Mountain.” Drummer Joe Travers was the backbone of everything and his equally daunting task was to follow the numerous drum stars of Bozzio, Colaiuta, Wackerman, Dunbar, Humphrey, Mundi and Black, which he did superbly. He never overplayed, which many of Frank’s drummers did, and also contributed some of the funnier Flo & Eddie moments from “Billy the Mountain.” Finally, Pete Griffin played solidly on bass, taking one memorable blues-based solo and having the most demonstrably fun time of the whole band on stage. He was a joy to watch.

Perhaps Dweezil might consider taking this band out to do other material besides his father’s?

Here’s the bad news that will not endear me to Zappa fans and, indeed, cause many to wonder if I have lost my mind: Any of the problems that existed were in the material itself, not the performance of such. It is anathema in certain quarters to question Frank’s writing, but I have to do it; so much seems disjointed.

We are not talking about classical works out of the pages of “The Yellow Shark.” We are talking about songs (or, if you will, pop or rock compositions) and some of them have A sections, B sections, C sections, D…E…F…a bridge here, an interlude there, a four-bar linking phrase here, a comic percussive moment there, a bar of 6, a bar of 9…and what happens? The unity disppears. The focus is lost. Indeed, the whole point is gone…and, I’m sorry, boredom ensues. It becomes a compositional exercise.

Frank Zappa and his disciples would argue upon the basis of “Project/Object,” a philosophical point of view in which all of Zappa’s music was one continuous form incorporating various repeated musical and lyrical themes — much as Neil Young said during the Arc/Weld tour of 1991, “It’s all one note, man.” Think of it as a fundamental unit of work subdivided into build directories and given the blessing of the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps my mind is not so oriented toward the Great Picture and focuses on such small items as the perfectly constructed song.  I’m appreciative of a composer messing with conventional structures, but not at the expense of my attention. Frank Zappa wrote quite a few perfectly constructed songs and pieces — and they are sprinkled throughout his enormously prolific career, from 1966’s “Freak Out” through the 1970’s funk-cum-rock period to the 1980s more pointedly political engagement — but there are just as many examples of strung-together ideas with no shape, form or reason.

Frank Zappa got into the greatest trouble, in my opinion, in his longer, more “theatrical” works, which seemed to give him license to cram every musical idea he had into them: “Joe’s Garage,” “Thing-Fish,” “Civilization Phaze III,” “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary,” and…yes…”Billy the Mountain.” And Zappa Plays Zappa elected to play that last piece in its entirety.

Hoo-weee. Somewhere, halfway through this fairy-tale of the forces of freedom and independence (Billy the Mountain and his wife, Ethel, a tree) fighting an intransigent, suffocating government (embodied in the character of Studebaker Hawk), I began to wonder out loud at my table, “Is this really worth it?” And I thought of the absolute pain it must have been to rehearse this material with its topically tropical points of reference like Cal Worthington Dodge, Crosby, Stills & Nash and L.A. Police Chief Thomas Reddin.

I’m sure that Frank had intended a sort of Brecht/Weill dramatic rendering, and representational motifs (Prokoviev immediately comes to mind) are heard throughout, but it fails to engage both on its original recording (“Just Another Band from L.A.”) and in the live version that Zappa Plays Zappa offered.

Relatively shorter disjointed workouts, like the instrumental “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” (perhaps the most difficult thing performed and another set highlight), almost seem to wear their peacock’s quiver of musical ideas audaciously and they work as virtuso set pieces probably because of their relative brevity.

It almost hurts me to criticize Zappa Plays Zappa; the commitment is so entire, so encompassing and so obviously out of love, and…it has to be said…Dweezil has commendably avoided his father’s most extremely offensive work, some of which goes way beyond the bounds of Rabelaisian humor into, perhaps, a darker realm. But, in the greater scheme of things, Frank did some good and he did some bad. Some things work and others don’t and the concept of “Project/Object” can become a conveniently reductionist excuse for incompletely developed ideas.

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