Dweezil Zappa stressed again and again how thoroughly his band had done their homework. At several points during Monday's two and a half hour show, he explained how the seven-member ensemble had dissected the original stereo mixes of Frank Zappa songs for their latest tour. The band, Dweezil insisted, wanted to perfect the rich harmonies, impossibly dense melodies and driving guitar solos that marked his father's music. Their efforts paid off.
The group navigated some of the most challenging tunes from albums like 200 Motels, Fillmore East: June 1971, The Grand Wazoo and Tinseltown Rebellion with relative ease. At certain points, they recreated the lush, ambient sounds of Frank Zappa's jazz- and classical-inspired studio albums. At others, they captured the visceral, raw feel of the live records.
At certain points, however, it still felt as if a certain element was missing, a factor that had much to do with the group's ambitious run through such a wide range of material. In past years, the touring band included musicians like Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock, veterans who'd played in Frank Zappa's bands and left their stamps on key albums. In the band's past two appearances in Colorado, the old-veterans have disappeared, replaced by vocalist Ben Thomas.
But unlike the group's appearance at last year's Progressive Rock festival, the absence wasn't as noticeable. Their role as the sole, headlining act gave the group room to showcase its prowess and space to tackle more complicated material. The band's familiarity with the music didn't come as a complete surprise, especially considering that the majority of the outfit has been honing their musical tribute since 2005.
Still, the band showed a good deal of evolution since its first tour. Yes, the set included familiear versions of Frank Zappa staples like "Peaches En Regalia," "Cosmik Debris" and "I'm the Slime." But as a bandleader, Dweezil dug deeper into his father's massive catalogue.
To that end, the band offered spot-on takes on dizzying instrumentals like "Little House I Used to Live In" and "Blessed Relief." They tackled the odd time signatures and scatological humor of tunes like "What Kind of Girl?" and "Blue Light." Their versions of "City of Tiny Lites" and "Advance Romance" were faithful tributes to the versions on the albums Sheik Yerbouti and Bongo Fury.
The caliber of the musicians had a lot to do with the set's success. Chris Norton's keyboard work emulated giants like George Duke, Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf, with no show of strain. Thomas admirably handled a wide range of vocals, parts originally performed by an imposing list that includes Captain Beefheart, Adrian Belew and the Turtles' Flo and Eddie. His trumpet work on tunes like "Eat that Question" and his harmonica solo on "Advance Romance" showed his flexibility as a musician.
The veteran players in the group didn't disappoint, either. Scheila Gonzalez, Pete Griffin, Billy Hulting, Jamie Kime and Joe Travers have all played in the band since its inception, and their experience showed in the form of captivating solos and entrancing stretches of improvisation.
Switching between multiple guitars, Dweezil worked to fill his father's gaping absence as an improviser and soloist. Like on the song's album version, he soloed on a Gibson during "Easy Meat." His solos during "Eat That Question" and "Pick Me I'm Clean" took melodic cues from the original recordings. His phrasing on lines in "Little House I Used to Live In" was especially uncanny for their fidelity to the original version.
The attention to detail resonated. The audience that packed the floor and the balcony gave a standing ovation after each song. During the more cerebral instrumentals, the majority sat respectfully, nodding their heads and tapping their feet. During the more raucous, straightforward rock tunes, they crowded the aisles and danced.
It was an enthusiasm that made up for the slight musical missteps, for the falsettos missed and the solos that couldn't fully match the originals. The overall care for the music's intent, matched with the constant zeal of the crowd, made the tribute seem all the more genuine.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal bias: Dweezil urged the crowd to support the band, citing the importance of keeping his father's music alive. Considering the fact that Frank Zappa's surviving family has been so litigious toward other tribute bands, the plea seemed a bit disingenuous. Random Detail: Singer Ben Thomas threw in a local touch -- he included references to Elitch Gardens and Rocky Mountain Oysters during "Blue Light." By the way: Scheila Gonzalez plays a damn fine saxophone solo.
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Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa 06.07.10 • Denver, CO • The Paramount Theatre Set List
01. Stinkfoot 02. Mystery Roach 03. Lonely Little Girl 04. City of Tiny Lites 05. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy 06. What Kind of Girl? 07. Blessed Relief 08. Cosmic Debris 09. Blue Light 10. Pick Me, I'm Clean 11. Eat That Question 12. Advance Romance 13. Little House I Used to Live In 14. Latex Solar Beef/Willie the Pimp Pt. 1 15. Apostrophe (') 16. Big Swifty 17. Easy Meat 18. Keep It Greasy
• Encore •
01. Peaches En Regalia 02. I'm the Slime