Zappa Plays Zappa - Auditorium - 6/17/06
Note: all the pictures on this page a linked from the official ZPZ site. If they post pictures from the Auditorium show I'll change the links, but if they take 'em down, the links will break.
Stephanie never saw Frank Zappa in concert. I don't know that she's ever even seen any of the concerts I have on VHS or DVD, but she has heard the music. So she thought she knew what to expect when we went to see Zappa Plays Zappa at the Auditorium on Saturday, June 17. But it was nothing like she had expected.
I, on the other hand, had seen Frank Zappa many times in concert. Eight times, if I'm not mistaken, between 1980 and 1984. I somehow missed his final stop in Chicago in '88 (something I'm still kicking myself about) so when I saw that his son, Dweezil, was putting a tour together to play his father's music, I was thrilled. And I was even more thrilled when I browsed over to the zappa.com web site a couple months ago and found a code that let me get tickets the day before they were supposed to go on sale!
The Auditorium is a GREAT place to see a concert. First of all, it beats places like the House of Blues or the Vic because it has SEATS! One of my major pet peeves of recent years is how people go to a concert and spend the whole time talking (or "yakkin'" as the guy on the VW commercial put it.) We have been to several concerts where it's been all but impossible to hear the music over the din of the conversations going on around us. It's been pointed out to me that the HoB is a bar, so casual conversation is to be expected. But what "bar" has a $50 cover charge? You paid for the music, LISTEN TO IT! And if not, SHUT UP and let other people listen to it.
Anyway, because I was able to pre-order the tickets, we had great seats: first balcony, second row center. We could see everything, and the rows are sufficiently steep that Stephie could pretty much see over the person in front of her. We got there early (after a great dinner at Exchequers on Wabash), got a program, and found our seats. The crowd was an interesting mix of young and old, some who were obviously fans from way back, and some who were probably not yet born the last time that Frank's band came through town. The stage was set up pretty much like the times I had seen Frank play, with drum riser in the middle, and keyboards and miscellaneous percussion on the same level on either side of that. One thing different was a second drum kit on the right of the stage.
Finally the lights went out, the crowd went crazy, and a film started to play on the big screen behind the instruments. The titles said something about Roxy '74, obviously from a concert that the Zappa family has been promising us a DVD of for several years, and after Frank introduces the band, they played a rousing version of "Montana". As the song ends, the video faded out and the current band walked on stage to thunderous applause, Dweezil grinning and nodding his head.
What followed was over three hours of fine music and fine musicianship. I've read in interviews where Dweezil said that he wanted to present his Dad's music as faithfully as possible, but he wanted the younger people in the audience to look up on stage and see young people playing this complicated music, so that they can recognize that the music is still vital, not just some nostalgia act. And I think he has succeeded. These people can play! I'm not sure what Dweezil's guitar playing was like before, but reports are that he rededicated himself to his playing so that he would be up to the task of playing these songs in a concert setting, and I would say, from a fan's perspective, that he pulled it off.
There were some remnants of his father's band along for the ride, too. Throughout most of the show, Napoleon Murphy Brock handled the lead vocals. He was with Frank's band for many years (in fact, he was in the video from '74 that started the show!) and he still has a great voice and is an entertaining performer. I was a little surprised that Dweezil didn't sing at all, but with Brock handling the vocals, he didn't really need to. Also, part of the way through the show, Terry Bozzio came out to sit behind that extra drum kit on the right. Despite being a phenomenal (and very manic) drummer, he performed lead vocals on several songs back when he played with Frank, and he proved that he can still sing as well as play. The other special guest was guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who debuted with Frank's band back in 1980, the year I saw my first Zappa show. These three musicians were a very tangible link to the past.
But what about the music choices? Well, I'd have to say that there was a nice selection of Frank's music, from "Hungry Fraks, Daddy", the first track on his first album in 1966, through several numbers from 1979's Sheik Yerbouti. We didn't hear "Valley Girl", but we got great renditions of "King Kong", "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow", "Peaches En Regalia", "Montana", and the ever-popular "Punky's Whips".
One of the highlights was between songs, when Dweezil stepped forward and mentioned that he met a new friend that evening. He looked out over the crowd and brought up a young boy named Ellis. He said that Ellis' favorite song is the one with the line about the "Guacamole Queen" in it. "You all know which one that is, don't you?" he asked the crowd, to rousing applause. He told Ellis that he could stay wherever he wanted on stage, and the band launched into "Inca Roads". At first, he didn't know what to do, just standing there, looking around. But during the guitar solo, Dweezil motioned him over, took his hand, and pressed his finger to the string as Dweezil played. While they were playing together, Ellis' head started to nod in time to the music. After that, he really started to get into the song. Later, keyboardist Aaron Arntz waved him over and had Ellis play a couple notes during a prolonged keyboard part. He really looked like he was having a great time. I started to think that Dweezil might just accomplish what he had set out to do, to bring the music to a new generation.
Unfortunately, at least in my mind, once Ellis sat back down Terry Bozzio came out, introducing the next song with an expletive. It kind of shocked me, not that I'm a prude by any stretch, but because I was just marveling at how "kid-friendly" the show had been up to that point. And many of Frank's songs from the time that Bozzio was in the band are of the more bawdy variety, including the ones that they played that night, such as the aforementioned "Punky's Whips". But except for a bit of foul language, it was probably no worse than what you might hear these days on the radio, and that was just a small part of a completely entertaining evening.
The other highlight was near the end of the main set. Dweezil said that he wanted to bring out another special guest, "one who needed no introduction". The stage dimmed a bit and the screen behind lit up again, showing a youthful Frank Zappa bounding out on a stage, waving to the audience. He grabbed a guitar and launched into "Chunga's Revenge". It seemed like the only sound coming from the movie was his guitar, because the band on stage was playing along, as Dweezil played a duet with his dad. Eventually, Dweezil dropped out and Frank soloed with Dweezil's band, as Dweezil stood by and watched. As the solo on the film came to an end, the stage lights came up and Dweezil picked up right where his dad left off, finishing the song. As the crowd roared its appreciation, Dweezil stood on the stage, wiping his eyes. We've become cynical these days, questioning whether things are spontaneous or planned, but to me, he seemed genuinely moved by seeing his father on the screen behind him.
The band left the stage and the crowd was on their feet, applauding until they came out for a lengthy encore, ending, as Dweezil said his dad liked to do, with a terrific version of "Sofa".
Stephie was blown away. She said that she really didn't know what to expect, but she was amazed at the quality and variety of the music. I was impressed by the choice of the songs, and with the obvious talent of the band. The show was only lacking the obvious showmanship that the elder Zappa brought to the proceedings. Napoleon Murphy Brock is a capable front man, and Dweezil definitely has the musical chops, but Frank had such a stage presence that's hard to replace. Actually, when this tour was initially announced several years ago, Frank's other son, Ahmet, was supposed to be on the tour as vocalist. While Dweezil inherited much of his father's musical talent, he seems much more reserved than his dad was, and Ahmet gives me the impression that he would be more outgoing on stage. That would be a combination I'd like to see in the future.
But until that happens, I would recommend going to see Dweezil and his band if you can. They have added more dates in the fall, including a Halloween show in New York that will probably sell out in minutes, and I hope that they come back to Chicago, because I'd go see them again.
I think the old man would be proud.