Zappa Plays Zappa at the Fox, 12/14
Dweezil Zappa onstage at the Fox Theatre in Boulder for Zappa Plays Zappa.
"Still, nothing sounds like that," Dweezil Zappa marveled after his band had made its way through "Who Are the Brain Police?" the feedback-laden, surreal anthem from the 1966 Mothers of Invention album Freak Out!. Dweezil and the rest of the Zappa Plays Zappa sextet were more than a third of the way through their live tribute to the music of Frank Zappa for a sold-out crowd at the Fox Theatre when he made this assertion. The band had already played tunes from more than a dozen Frank Zappa albums, a sampling that eloquently backed up Dweezil's observation about his father's music. There's still nothing that sounds like the music of Frank Zappa. There's still no style that melds classical rigor, jazz-based improvisation and rock and roll abandon in quite the same way.
That observation was at the heart of the Zappa Plays Zappa show this past weekend. Leading a slimmer ensemble than in past visits (missing in the six-piece band was a percussionist, as well as any veteran players from Frank Zappa's past touring bands), Dweezil Zappa worked his hardest to represent his father's wide range of sounds and styles.
Zappa Plays Zappa at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.
From bluesy guitar-based anthems like "Willie the Pimp" from 1969's Hot Rats to complex classical compositions like "Strictly Genteel" from 200 Motels, Orchestral Favorites and London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 2 albums, the band delivered an impressive and ambitious tour through Frank Zappa's catalogue. What's more, the group did it with a high level of skill and expertise. While some of the tunes suffered from the absence of a specialized percussion player, Dweezil and the other five musicians had enough tools in their collective musical arsenals to cover a wealth of styles.
Saxophonist, flautist, keyboard player and vocalist Scheila Gonzalez jumped between musical duties with ease, delivering impassioned vocals on "Dirty Love" just as comfortably as she played a stirring flute accompaniment on "Peaches En Regalia." Dweezil announced early that lead vocalist Ben Thomas was suffering from a cold, but that didn't hold back impressive vocal performances on tunes like "Pygmy Twylyte" and spot-on trombone accompaniment for songs like "Strictly Genteel."
Keyboardist Chris Norton also wore multiple musical hats, laying down forceful vocal leads for songs from the Sheik Yerbouti album like "Tryin' to Grow a Chin" and "City of Tiny Lites." Drummer Joe Travers was explosive and bassist Pete Griffin was a consummate virtuoso. The band even included tour manager Pete Jones as a stand in for Captain Beefheart and he sang the lead vocals for "Debra Kadabra" from the Bongo Fury record.
The shared level of skill gave all of the 23 songs a careful attention to detail. The band pulled off some of the most challenging songs from Roxy & Elsewhere without a hitch; the tongue-in-cheek country ballad "Harder Than Your Husband" from You Are What You Is kept all of its irreverence and humor, and the band even took a cue from Frank Zappa's 1980s band in their Carlos Santana-inspired vamp for the "City of Tiny Lites" guitar solo.
Zappa Plays Zappa at the Fox Theatre in Boulder.
Speaking of guitar solos, Dweezil's careful efforts to do justice to his father's style once again bore fruit in the Fox performance. Between improvisations of his own on songs like "Muffin Man," "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and "Montana," Dweezil included key phrases and turns from the original recordings. During the evening's lone cover song (a version of the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" that Frank played throughout the 1980s), Dweezil seemed to wear two hats in a surreal way.
He'd played along with his father for the Allman Brothers tune on the live version from the album Does Humor Belong In Music?. During the Fox Theatre performance, Dweezil seemed to be playing as himself and paying tribute to his father by turns. Even in his moments of pure improve, Dweezil seemed to be pushing to make the point he put into words after "Brain Police," namely, that there's still no one making music like this.
That observation probably didn't come as breaking news for most of the sold-out crowd gathered at the Fox Theatre this weekend, many of whom sported Zappa T-shirts and looked to be over the age of 45. There were plenty of devotees among the younger audience members, as well. Between songs, many who looked to be in their twenties and thirties called out the loudest for obscure cuts from obscure albums.
Still, that point wasn't lost, even among the faithful. Zappa Plays Zappa drew a sold-out crowd, even with a smaller band, and even without a recognizable name like Steve Vai or Terry Bozzio on the bill. It's not easy to find music like this, and a capacity audience didn't want to miss their chance.
Personal Bias: I've been obsessive about Frank Zappa's music since high school, so Dweezil's observations about his father being ahead of his time weren't lost on me.
Random Detail: Between renditions of "Dirty Love" and "Sofa #1," Scheila Gonzalez took to the keyboards for a pretty spot-on version of the theme from "All in the Family."
By the way: Before breaking into "Pygmy Twylyte," Ben Thomas bemoaned the recent performance of the CU Buffs and talked about his own time in Boulder.
Zappa Plays Zappa
Fox Theatre - 12/14/12
Willie the Pimp
Hungry Freaks, Daddy
Echnida's Arf (Of You)
Penguin In Bondage
I'm So Cute
Tryin' to Grow a Chin
Harder Than Your Husband
Wind Up Workin' in a Gas Station
Ride My Face to Chicago
Let's Make the Water Turn Black
Debra Kadabra (feat. Pete Jones)
Who Are the Brain Police?
City of Tiny Lites
Peaches En Regalia
Whippin' Post (Allman Brothers cover)
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