Change is always scary, but a painful process of upheaval can often lead to vastly improved circumstances. Such is the case with Dweezil Zappa’s absurdly talented septet, Zappa Plays Zappa. When perpetual Zappa purveyor Ray White unceremoniously left the band last spring, he left a huge vocal gap – he did, after all, lend his unmistakable vocals to dozens of Zappa classics for decades. Having severed ties with both White and another pillar of Zappadom, vocalist/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, ZPZ faced the unenviable task of finding someone to absorb the often complex and dynamically demanding vocal aspect of their shows.
Enter Ben Thomas, a guy who, even when performing, looks a little more like a bartender than lead singer for one of the world’s best bands. Able to emulate a wide range of vocal styles and even infuse his own ideas into the proceedings, Thomas has enabled the band to draw from a wider swath of Zappa material than ever. This has led to drastically different set lists and a rapidly growing community of fans that rabidly discuss every move the band makes. Dweezil himself has embraced the role in the spotlight, giving back the obvious love that the fans have for the music.
Music fans new and old hunger to hear Zappa’s music presented in a live setting, and it’s no wonder. On stage is where the material is taken to the highest peaks and is able to inspire the most magnificent feats of musicality. The audience at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre stood enraptured for the majority of the 2-plus hour show – you couldn’t tear them away from the stage for anything, and there was little shuffling amongst the crowd, which was pleasant. The show was comprised of one jaw-dropping moment after another, and most of the overwhelmingly attentive audience left baffled by the level of skill displayed throughout.
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Peaches En Regalia was a dubious and perfect opener requested by the youngest fan in attendance, a five year old named Sol. There’s no such thing a warm-up for ZPZ – they hit the stage on fire – but the show did get exponentially more impressive as the band sailed through the limitless Zappa catalog. A voracious guitar solo from Dweezil highlighted Pound For A Brown, which completed a sort of instrumental prelude to the show. When a reality-bending instrumental workout like Peaches > Pound For A Brown opens a show, it imparts a certain amount of anticipation for what’s to come, and excitement was absolutely justified.
Broken Hearts Are For Assholes is an adaptable number that has been a staple of ZPZ shows for most of their existence, and it was nicely paired with the equally rocking Jones Crusher. This one-two punch from the beloved Sheik Yerbouti album was followed by a more esoteric selection, the Yellow Shark outtake T’Mershi Duween. This frantic instrumental was perfectly mind-boggling, with a nefarious time signature that punished the listener’s synapses. The band made a clean left turn into Keep It Greasy and attacked the song’s restless groove with the ferocity of a jungle predator.
A soulful (gasp!) version of You Didn’t Try to Call Me was inspired by the recent archival release Philly ’76. The original version is an extreme oddity in that it features a female vocalist and a rather explicit soul/pop arrangement that sounds nothing like anything else in the Zappa songbook. Dweezil was smart to highlight the unfathomably talented Scheila Gonzalez on this rare gem. Thomas seemed challenged to match her alluring croon, and the result was a truly bizarre moment among the forests of lunatic time signatures and note-mashing compositions. The contrast of You Didn’t Try To Call Me and the rest of the set was striking and almost awkward in a way, but nonetheless intriguing.
A long, exploratory Pygmy Twylyte anchored a delightfully lewd progression that began with Road Ladies, ended with Crew Slut, and included all manner of showmanship from every member. Emerging straight out of You Didn’t Try To Call Me, Road Ladies proved to be another in a long line of Zappa’s bluesy, aggressive numbers that beg for the stage. Thomas nailed the vocals on Road Ladies before engaging in a bout of Room Service banter with Dweezil during the chaos that followed Pygmy Twylyte. Catholic Girls and Crew Slut comprised a welcome nod to the epic Joe’s Garage and set the stage for a climactic, crowd-pleasing sprint to the finish.
A major component of the pure joy that is ZPZ live is the band’s grasp of material from all eras of Zappa’s career. The thrilling final hour of the show contained a cataclysmic version of 1981′s Dumb All Over – “recited” with personality by vibraphonist Billy Hulting – that led into a drum solo spiced with recognizable bits of 1978’s The Black Page. What should emerge from Joe Travers’ percussive madness but the rip-snorting mid-70′s instrumental Apostrophe, moving us even further back in time? Bassist Pete Griffin lit up the venue with his bombastic bass work, and the song’s accommodating structure allowed for a geyser of guitar soloing.
Staying firmly planted in Apostrophe-era rock, the band followed that titillating, time-warping trio of songs with the crowd-pleasing Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow and a doubly appreciated Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy. The latter hit extra hard in the set-closing spot, and its majestic, open-ended outro featured Dweezil soloing in a familiar and ferocious space.
The four-song encore stretched into a mini-set, as a performance of the recently learned oddity Wonderful Wino preceded a version of RDNZL that threatened to bring down the house. Gonzalez’ saxophone playing had taken a back seat to her vocals and keyboard work for the majority of the night, but she and mallet madman Hulting were turned loose on RDNZL. Gonzalez finally moved out from behind the keys for a few minutes, and Hulting shone through from his percussion nest at the back of the Lincoln’s barely adequate stage.
Cosmik Debris featured a complete round robin of solos from the entire band, during which guitarist Jamie Kime stepped forward with a blistering lead. The crowd rewarded him with serious appreciation – Kime had been the stoic workman on rhythm guitar for 99% of the show. Dirty Love is an appealing enough showstopper on its own merit, but when you add Gonzalez’ vocals into the mix, it becomes simply divine. What could be another standard song in the ZPZ repertoire is turned into a unique and sexy number with just a simple change of voice.
Zappa’s music takes a lifetime to explore, and there’s a galaxy of possibilities for ZPZ to consider in the future. They’ve moved away from the Joe’s Garage/You Are What You Is-heavy shows that dominated their time with Ray White, and they’ve taken their set lists to a new level of unpredictability. They’re already selling out shows and building a rabid group of fans for which every show is worth paying attention to. They’re already one of the universe’s best bands, and as they begin to incorporate more songs and make every show different, Zappa Plays Zappa will become superstars in the realm of serious live music.