Zappa Plays Zappa may fool some people into thinking it a cash cow.
Frank Zappa died far too young in 1993, succumbing to a long struggle with prostate cancer, capping off his substantial legacy with the orchestral collection The Yellow Shark. Though the influence of classical music, particularly that of Igor Stravinsky, is a strain that runs vividly through Zappa’s oeuvre, The Yellow Shark signaled a potentially more fertile future for his musical ventures. When his life met its unfortunately early close, however, this exciting potential abruptly halted. As a result, Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Frank’s guitar virtouoso son Dweezil, will either come off one of two ways: (1) As a son lovingly carrying out his father’s legacy by playing music; or, if you’re a cynic, (2) As a family trying to milk as much out of Frank’s legacy as possible.
Frank himself certainly had a critical eye for a range of contemporary ideological follies, capitalism being one of them, so perhaps such cynicism might make sense as an instinctive reaction. Moreover, on average, tribute bands are more likely to be the butt of a joke than anything else; when one thinks about it, tribute bands are more often not comprised entirely of the most hardcore fanboys and fangirls of the band in question.
For Zappa Plays Zappa, however, the answer is fortunately (1). “You can call us a tribute band, sure,” Dweezil says in the Roxy and Elsewhere 40th Anniversary Tour EPK: “You know why I don’t care if you call us a tribute band? I’m paying tribute to my father’s music in the most honest sense of the word.” “Paying tribute” is an understatement; Zappa Plays Zappa is a project thoroughly obsessed with and entrenched in the sounds of Zappa Senior, a fact aided significantly by the top-tier musical prowess of the musicians on stage. (Steve Vai, whom Zappa called his “stunt guitarist,” once toured with the band.) To that end, they certainly fit many of the stereotypes about tribute bands — but all of it stops there. Having both Dweezil’s and the Zappa Family Trust’s name behind the project grants the proceedings nominal legitimacy, sure, but amazingly this doesn’t sound like a tribute band doing Zappa’s music. Based on the many live albums Zappa released, the performers onstage could have fit in any of Zappa’s band’s easily — Dweezil, of course, has a upper hand here, what with the biological relations and all.
On a Friday night in Portland, Oregon — just blocks away from a building side painted with the immortal, unofficial city slogan: “KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD” — Dweezil leads his band of merry, perverted musicians through a dizzying revue of Zappa classics. The bulk of the set is taken up by an entire run-through of the 1974 live album Roxy & Elsewhere, which Frank recorded with his legendary Mothers of Invention. With the lineup of Dweezil (guitar), Scheila Gonzalez (saxophone, flute, keyboards, vocals), Ben Thomas (vocals, trombone, trumpet, various noisemakers), Chris Norton (Keyboards), Kurt Morgan (bass guitar), and Ryan Brown (drums), Zappa Plays Zappa takes to Roxy’s daunting setlist with aplomb.
Not only do they meet the challenge at the technical level, effortlessly zipping through the knotty passages of “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” but they also perform the original skits and comedic banter present in the LP version of Roxy. In this arena, Gonzalez and Thomas are the two key players; the former’s jaw-dropping multi-instrumental capabilities impressively does not halt her from dominating the visual gags in “Dummy Up,” and the latter’s scarily good ability to channel Frank’s singing voice has to be heard to be believed. Gonzalez also has a killer Eric Cartman impression — anachronistic however it might be in the Roxy set. Some members of the Roseland Theatre’s crowd, which this evening was largely nearing geriatric, liked Gonzalez’ success in the joint-smoking jokes in “Dummy Up” that they themselves take to lighting up some of Colorado’s finest, adding an ambiance that most Portland natives are no doubt familiar with.
The humor of the evening hit its apex with “Be-Bop Tango,” the lengthy finale of the Roxy LP. As Dweezil finishes the song’s opening salvo, he tells the audience that there will be audience participation involved — suffice it to say there was no shortage of volunteers. He calls up four women to the stage, who are joined by a rather enthusiastic young man who went up onstage without being called. During the jerky time signatures of the “Be-Bop Tango,” Dweezil gives the volunteers absurd instructions: He tells the young man to do a “mating dance” to impress the women — “something you’d see on the Discovery Channel” — and the women are told to dance like “burlesque leopard babies” — no doubt a long-lost Zappa song title. Bearing his father’s twisted sense of humor, Zappa instructs the women pretending to be leopard babies: “Imagine you have something rabies and epilepsy combined”… it’s not okay to make fun of the afflicted, but in this case, it’s okay.” One of the many rewards of the evening is that it’s not just Frank’s music that is alive and present in the room.
After a textbook execution of the Roxy album, without taking a break, the band dives into a second set comprised of various highlights from Frank’s career. Oddly enough, the Roxy material feels almost more like a warm-up to the second half’s tentacular reach into the Zappa catalogue. “The Black Page,” one of Frank’s most notorious pieces, is performed in full, including a pitch-perfect execution of that song’s blistering drum solo. “What’s New in Baltimore?” gives the chance for some humorous chat between the musicians (Gonzales/Thomas: “What’s new in Baltimore?” Dweezil: “I don’t know, because we’re in Portland, Oregon.”) Classic Zappa button-pushers like “Teenage Prostitute” and “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” are given sterling treatment. Best of all is the nice emphasis on the bluesy side of Frank’s music; “The Torture Never Stops” is an ideal continuation of the themes developed in Roxy’s “More Trouble Everyday,” which are then brought up again with opening encore number “Stinkfoot.” Jazz and blues came naturally to Frank (“Jazz isn’t dead… it’s very smooth,” Dweezil tells the audience), the latter moreso than a great deal of his many genre explorations. “The Torture Never Stops” and “More Trouble Everyday” bring equal parts killer hook and tasty instrumentation to the table; the crowd, unsurprisingly, goes wild when Zappa Plays Zappa captures that combination.
In a sense, however, the word “capture” in that previous sentence is misleading. What makes this performance so stellar is that it never feels like imitation, even really good imitation. One can classify Zappa Plays Zappa as a tribute band if so inclined; if that is the case, then they’re an extremely good tribute band, perhaps the best working in the business at the present moment. But I have a hard time categorizing Zappa Plays Zappa as such because it doesn’t feel like Frank has left the room; these musicians capture his spirit from beginning to end, in all of its nuanced facets. Sadly, Zappa died before I had the chance to see him perform live; but, if nothing else, the jubilant reaction of the crowd surrounding me, many of whom have seen Zappa Plays Zappa and Frank Zappa himself perform, confirms this sense of mine. Rather than opt for an endless barrage of overpriced and fussy reissues, the Zappa Family Trust has wisely placed the task of bringing Frank’s music constantly back into the public consciousness in this unbelievable, wild, and supremely entertaining outfit. If this isn’t how you carry on a posthumous legacy, I don’t know how else you could conceivably do it.
Zappa Plays Zappa Portland, Oregon Setlist [Author’s Note: “The Torture Never Stops” should be in the place of “Florentine Pogen”]