On top of being a master of moustache, musical composition, and satire, Frank Zappa is undisputedly one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He released 62 albums over the course of his career, and 50 more have been posthumously released by the Zappa Family Trust. Somehow, out of the 112 albums, no two are alike – his spectrum of styles encompasses amorphous improvisational shredding, free jazz, comedy rock, prog rock, orchestrated toy-like noise, and an array of uncategorizable whackery. Since the passing of Frank’s widow, Gail Zappa, their eldest son, Ahmet, has been the controversial executor of the ZFT, restricting his brother Dweezil from profiting off of his own name with his faithful tribute act, Zappa Plays Zappa. In response, Dweezil snarkily renamed his act – in true-to-Frank fashion – 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants—the Cease and Desist Tour.
For the past two years, Ahmet has teamed up with hologram production company, Eyellusion, to bring the legend back to the stage, and the product is finally here. Before last night, I’d never seen a hologram before, and have always been skeptical about both the ethics and the entertainment factor. Zappa, however, seemed to be a fitting choice for the hologram treatment, as it’s about as zany a prospect as any Frankendeavor. Even so, I still wasn’t sure what to expect last night, going into the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, NJ.
As soon as hologram Zappa appeared on stage, the first thing I thought was: I don’t think Frank would have approved. What stood before my eyes was no hologram, it was an animation on a screen: a virtual ’70s-era Frank with added musculature, complete with his trademark crotch bulge. The rendering was decent, but I’ve honestly seen more convincing CGI in porn. Eyellusion, you’ve got some work to do. I must say, however, that the live musicians – all of whom are past members of Frank’s bands, including Scott Thunes on bass and Mike Keneally on guitar, keys, and whatever else his multi-talented hands could grab – did play phenomenally. The setlist was a great selection of canonical numbers, like “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” with a couple more specialized, jam-heavy rarities. Frank’s guitar and vocals came from unreleased archival recordings, the sound quality of which was of noticeably lower fidelity than that of the live sound, but I suppose that’s to be expected.
The omnipresence of LED-screen animations crowded out Frank’s holographic rendering for most of the show, and while many of the Terry-Gilliam-esque cartoons were amusing at times, they were usually more of a distraction. I did, after all, come to see Frank’s hologram. There were moments where live footage of him was shown on-screen, matching the music, and I wish there had been more of that.
Now here’s what topped it all off – toward the end of the show, the band simmered to background music as hype-beast, Ahmet Zappa, came out to excite the crowd. For what felt like a good forty minutes, Ahmet danced onstage and pranced around the auditorium with a microphone asking fans to stand up and share their biggest fears, so that a band member would reply with a corresponding “nightmare solo” to wash those troubles away. One fan mumbled into the mic, “I’m too high to stand,” which Ahmet repeated more clearly for the whole crowd to resound in cheering laughter. That moment, I admit, was a humdinger; but overall, I felt like I was at a cheesy game show, and, while much of the audience looked like they were having a blast, I didn’t appreciate Ahmet stealing the spotlight for so long from the so-called “hologram” of his deceased father, who was, after all, the reason we were gathered here. If I had to choose between this and Dweezil, however, I’d pick the latter, hands down. They can’t all be zingers. — KYLE WEINSTEIN