THE THINKER: The Tenacious Z On The Throne
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER An ingenious crank with the ears of Stravinsky and the soul of Alfred E. Neuman, Frank Zappa is credited in the straight world with a handful of novelty songs (“Valley Girl,” “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) and as a result a dubious rep as the hippie forefather of Weird Al Yankovic. When in fact he cuts much deeper than that. Always more of a musician’s musician than a give-the-rabble-what-they-want kind of guy, Zappa made albums — bizarre, labyrinthine hybrids of jazz, rock, prog and doo-wop shot through with satire, burlesque and fart jokes — that would become a right of passage for aspiring malcontents and freshman dorm non-conformists, a cause celebre for a brainy cult of future civil engineers and IT guys who’ve held onto their air guitar chops well into middle age, and an amorphous but undeniable influence on the Jam Band Nation, especially iconoclastic smart alecks such as Primus, who play songs about melted cheese with jazz-like rigor and precision. Still, from his debut in 1966 (The Mothers Of Invention’s Freak Out) to his death by cancer in 1993, Zappa could never quite bring himself to take the world seriously, and it was a favor the world returned.
Correcting that perception is, in part, the impetus for Zappa Plays Zappa, the currently-touring Zappa tribute ensemble led by son Dweezil, which turned in a generous two-and-a-half-hour salute to his dearly departed Dad Thursday night at the Fillmore. As expected, there were epic guitar solos of the cat-strangling variety, which inevitably led to call-and-response wank-offs amongst the three guitarists. There were never-ending drum fills leading to stop-on-a-dime pregnant pauses, busy-fingered counter-intuitive bass runs, and the dizzying calculus of ever-shifting time-signatures — as well as songs with titles like “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy,” and “G-Spot Tornado” — all delivered with a tenacious fidelity to the original recordings by Dweezil’s seven-piece band. Vocal chores were shared by Dweezil, who mimicked his father’s droll nasality, and longtime Zappa Band alum Ray White, who did all the actual singing — harmonizing impeccably with flutist/saxophonist Scheila Gonzalez on the Flo & Eddie parts, he brought heart and a much-needed dose of soulful elasticity to the jagged rigidity and groove-killing gymnastics of the compositions. And Frank Zappa himself took lead vocals on “Dumb All Over,” towering mustachioed over the band from a giant rear-projected screen as he delivered the bawdy rap intro with stand-up comic aplomb. And while all the old heads got what they wanted, I’m not so sure Dweezil fulfilled his stated mission of introducing his father’s music to a new generation. Message to Dweezil: Consider updating the arrangements for modern listeners. Seriously dude, there’s only so much over-compressed guitar shredding and China Splash cymbal abuse that these 21st Century ears can take.
“The City of Baltimore is proud of its rich musical heritage, and is honored to claim the prolific composer, musician, author, and film director Frank Zappa as a native of our fair city; and WHEREAS, Frank Zappa’s artistry involved many musical genres, including rock, jazz, electronic, and symphonic music, and his lasting impact has left an indelible mark on the art and all those who attempt to follow in his footsteps; and
WHEREAS, Frank Zappa has received world-wide recognition for his talents and innovation and defense of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States of America; and
WHEREAS, representing the Zappa Family, Dweezil Zappa is here today to embody his father’s music and legacy on stage for the first time in Baltimore, making this an appropriate day to honor Frank Zappa’s memory and his many great accomplishments.”