This gig was the high point of three days of events at Camden’s Roundhouse theatre to celebrate what would’ve been Frank Zappa’s 70th birthday. Every wall panel of the venue bore a five-foot square replica of a Zappa album cover, and they didn’t have to repeat a single one. Part of the reason Zappa’s catalogue of work is so extensive is that he specialised in live recordings, with many albums’ worth of material being collections of the same songs played by different line-ups in different eras of his thirty years of gigging up to his death from prostate cancer in 1993.
Zappa didn’t just play rock music, though if you’re someone who’s heard of him but not followed his career, you could be forgiven for thinking so. His most commercial tunes – if such a description could be used of Zappa’s music – tend to be his most notorious: social satire, often with explicitly sexual or racial lyrical content, set to driving or teasing four-four rhythms, the occasional appearance of which in the charts or one TV gave them the aura of underground novelty hits. I’m thinking of ‘Jewish Princess’, ‘Titties ’n’ Beer’, ‘Bobby Brown’ or ‘Valley Girl’, known to some Zappa non-aficionados from his late ’70s albums like Sheik Yerboutie, Live in New York and Joe’s Garage.
As a composer, Zappa was a master of all musical forms, from klezmer to tango, reggae to samba and classical to jazz, and naturally, his musicians had to be masters of these forms too. He didn’t just imitate various styles for quaint effect, he frequently quilted them together into musical suites of dazzling complexity. Consequently, Zappa is something of a musician’s musician, and it’s no surprise that there are dozens and dozens of acts still out there performing his compositions both live and on a host of recordings that will keep any Zappaphile happily collecting till the end of their days.
Soon, the huge screen over the stage, which till now had borne a static image of Frank’s face, came alive with the man himself.
And there can be no more affecting tribute act than tonight’s headliners, Zappa Plays Zappa – a line-up of nine or ten gifted young players headed by Zappa’s son Dweezil on lead guitar, the instrument his father played on stage to electrifying effect. The support act was The Mighty Boosh Band, which under other circumstances would’ve been by far the more famous of tonight’s two acts. Their half-hour set of self-penned songs, some familiar from their TV show, together with the weirdness of their outfits and personnel, set the right tone of fun, irreverence and psychosis, helped by the incorporation of a Zappa song – ‘Willy the Pimp’ from Hot Rats – into one of their own tunes.
But everyone tonight was here for Zappa and, however you read that, Dweezil or Frank, they weren’t about to be disappointed. After opening with the tight, bluesy, sax-driven ‘Gumbo Variations’ – another track from 1969’s Hot Rats, possibly the Zappa album with the most longevity – the band embarked on the evening’s main course, a performance of the album Apostrophe from beginning to end. This included at least one piece – the title track, an instrumental built around a bass solo played through a fuzzbox – that had never been played live by either of the Zappas, father or son, before.
That wasn’t the only treat in store, though, and the sense that tonight was gonna be something special was not let down. Soon, the huge screen over the stage, which till now had borne a static image of Frank’s face, came alive with the man himself. By isolating his voice and guitar from film recordings from his ’70s heyday and building their performance around the specifics of the original live arrangements, Dweezil’s band were able to incorporate Frank’s singing and lead guitar solos into about half a dozen of the numbers they played tonight. For us sad sacks who never got to see him on stage when he was alive, tonight was the next best thing.
Special guests brought on at various points in the proceedings included bassist Scott Thunes, from Frank’s last live line-up from the late ’80s, Jeff Simmons, who worked on the 1972 album Waka Jawaka and Frank’s daughter Moon Unit, who came on to provide vocals for ‘Valley Girl’, another live first. But it was Dweezil’s ensemble of youngbloods that laid the foundations for a full-on evening of the most solid entertainment, the highlights of which for me were ‘Inca Roads’, ‘Montana’ and ‘RDNZL’. Dweezil’s talk of wanting to make this an annual event may have been excitable and wishful thinking, but as far as the packed-out auditorium was concerned, he was speaking for the whole audience.
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