CONCERT RECAP: Zappa Plays Zappa @ The Roxy, West Hollywood 12/7/13 + 12/9/13

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Words by Michael Hillson

When Dweezil Zappa began Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, the concerts they performed were a celebration of the music of his father, Frank Zappa, by a skilled band augmented with alumni from the 1970s and ‘80s lineups. Over the years, the lineup of Zappa Plays Zappa has undergone a complete overhaul with entirely new members aside from Dweezil, but the end result remains the same: earnest and faithful renditions of not only the challenging and varied catalog of Frank Zappa’s oeuvre, but also the playful and uncompromising spirit that infused his songs and live shows.

Traveling to The Roxy in West Hollywood to see Zappa Plays Zappa tackle a full rendition of Roxy & Elsewhere felt like a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, this is the famous venue where a majority of the live album was recorded and the room hasn’t changed much since those historic performances. This was a three night run of anniversaries as the shows were originally scheduled 40 years to the day of the original Roxy gigs (December 8-10, 1973), although there was a slight adjustment a few months back, pushing these concerts up one day to December 7-9. Nevertheless, the week also contained a more somber reminder of the continuing popularity of Frank’s legacy as the 20 year anniversary of his death in 1993 was marked on December 4th. Dweezil made note of this towards the end of the first show, giving pause to the audience who had gathered for a festive evening replete with a record that many, if not all, in attendance had grown up on.

The anticipation for night 1 was palpable as a sold out crowd grew antsy and eager to hear how the band would present this classic material in the very same spot where it had been created lo those many years ago. I spoke with a gentleman who had traveled north with his children from San Diego and surely there were those who journeyed further to be there, especially given the foreign languages I heard peppered amidst the pre-show chatter. There were even some attendees who were present at the original concerts; what a surreal and fulfilling feeling that must have been for those lucky few to now see Frank’s son, only 4 years old in 1973, leading his own band in tribute to his father’s renowned creative output.

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The 10 tracks of Roxy & Elsewhere displayed a little bit of everything that has made Frank Zappa’s music so enduring. The lyrics ran the gamut from wild and zany to earnest and topical, the songs touched upon genres including rock, funk, jazz and blues and the group left a unique stamp on the proceedings by incorporating some props including diplomas and one giant gym sock-stuffed joint to “Dummy Up”, perplexing antics from the band during “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” and a bubble machine prior to “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)” along with on stage dancing from some particularly brave audience members. Musically, “Pygmy Twylyte” and “Son of Orange County” > “More Trouble Every Day” stood out for their technical precision and outstanding guitar solos from Dweezil. They truly did justice to the revered record, impressing longtime fans and novices alike.

Following a front to back cover of the album, Zappa Plays Zappa carried on with other selections including “Florentine Pogen” from One Size Fits All, the drum melody of “The Black Page #1” preceding the “The Black Page #2” and a deliberately atonal vocal performance of “I Come From Nowhere” by multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez. Towards the end of the main set, stage hand and technician Pete Jones took lead vocals on the abrasive “Fifty-Fifty” from Over-nite Sensation to rousing success. The encore began with the aforementioned comment from Dweezil on Frank’s untimely passing before the audience’s collective jaws hit the floor as Zappa Plays Zappa opened the closely guarded Zappa Family Trust vault and delivered a stunning “Watermelon in Easter Hay”. Not performed out of respect for the composer for many years, it is one of his signature pieces of music and after being debuted earlier this tour, speculation ran rampant whether those at The Roxy would be lucky enough to bear witness to another live airing. Performed on a Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix gave to Frank at the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 (oft disputed to have been received at the Monterey Pop Festival), the instrument has been painstakingly restored to a flawless guitar tone while retaining the body’s fire-charred appearance. This was without a doubt a highlight of the night and of my aural experiences with Frank’s music. The songs that followed were simply (lumpy) gravy: “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and the endearing Hot Rats ode to dental floss farming, “Montana” before the satisfied crowd exited The Roxy onto the surprisingly cold Sunset Strip.

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I did not attend the middle night on December 8th, but did read that a few different songs appeared in the latter half of the show including “Duke of Prunes”, “Filthy Habits”, “The Evil Prince” and “Willie the Pimp”, among others. The final show of the run (and 2013) was played to a considerably smaller audience but proved to be an even longer concert than the first night, approaching three hours in running time. After another well performed and received complete rendition of Roxy & Elsewhere, Zappa Plays Zappa gave us a punchy version of “Peaches En Regalia” followed by “Teen-Age Wind” that had some interesting vocal changes to mention Phish and Trey Anastasio instead of the original lyrics of The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. These little touches selfishly thrilled me as a longtime fan of the quartet from Vermont but was another indication that Zappa Plays Zappa are not a mere cover band but an ensemble who, at times, adapt and update the material to contemporary audiences. Just when I began to become slightly dismayed that the third night was not showing enough difference from the first – an official Facebook update had promised “uniquely different post Roxy sets” – the band unleashed a trio (!) from Sheik Yerbouti: “Flakes”, “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” and “City of Tiny Lights” to squelch all possible gripes about setlist variety. The changes kept coming as “Cosmik Debris” closed the main set and ushered in an encore that spanned a range of emotions from reflective and contemplative to jubilant and exhilarating. Another “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on the Hendrix Strat summarily quieted the crowd as everyone recognized the significance of the moment and basked in the patient, focused and nuanced guitar mastery that Dweezil possesses, clearly a genetic gift from the overwhelming abilities of his father. A second special guest in the two shows I attended was invited on stage: Scheila Gonzalez’s husband James Santiago who admirably dueled with Dweezil on “Zomby Woof” before gleefully relinquishing the challenge after a length guitar battle. The final song of the run would be by another band, The Allman Brothers Band, whose “Whipping Post” was a rare cover performed by Frank Zappa semi-regularly in the 1980s. Ending the concert in this fashion fit perfectly as it provided a rocking conclusion to the night while remaining mindful of fans’ wishes towards obscure material from the master’s long career.

Dweezil Zappa has surrounded himself with exceedingly talented musicians in this latest incarnation of Zappa Plays Zappa: Scheila Gonzalez on Saxophone, Flute, Keyboards and Vocals, Ben Thomas on Vocals, Trombone and Percussion, Chris Norton on Keyboards and Vocals, Kurt Morgan on Bass and Ryan Brown on Drums. Dweezil’s seemingly effortless guitar proficiency is at an apex and the willingness to take risks in song selection is indicative of this ever-growing ability. The unusual time signatures, frequent tempo changes and required skills on a multitude of instruments in Frank Zappa’s catalog would easily wither under less adept performers. It had been quite a long time since I had seen Zappa Plays Zappa, but this run of shows reinvigorated my appreciation for their interpretations of the wealth of offbeat compositions that have entered the musical lexicon as a result of Frank’s restless genius. To paraphrase a famous quote from Frank Zappa: “Music is the Best” and when it comes to performing this complex and demanding material, no current group does it better than Zappa Plays Zappa.

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Setlists:

12/7/13 – The Roxy – West Hollywood, CA
Penguin In Bondage
Pygmy Twylyte
Dummy Up
Village of the Sun
Echidna’s Arf (Of You)
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
Cheepnis
Son of Orange County
More Trouble Every Day
Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)
Florentine Pogen
Teenage Wind
Teenage Prostitute
The Black Page #1
The Black Page #2
I Come From Nowhere
Fifty-Fifty (with Pete Jones on Vocals)
The Torture Never Stops

Encore:
Watermelon In Easter Hay
Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow
Montana

12/9/13 – The Roxy – West Hollywood, CA
Penguin In Bondage
Pygmy Twylyte
Dummy Up
Village of the Sun
Echidna’s Arf (Of You)
Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
Cheepnis
Son of Orange County
More Trouble Every Day
Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)
Peaches En Regalia
Teenage Wind
Teenage Prostitute
The Torture Never Stops
The Black Page #1
The Black Page #2
Flakes
Broken Hearts are For Assholes
City of Tiny Lites
I Come From Nowhere
Cosmik Debris

Encore:
Watermelon In Easter Hay

Zomby Woof (with James Santiago on guitar)

Whipping Post

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