My greatest concert experience was They Might Be Giants at The Rave on October 19th, 1997. It was my first time seeing my favorite band, and they played an incredible show. Two encores, puppet heads, Triboro and Frankenstein. On the way out of the theater I was pulled aside by the guys from Waunakee who had wiped the floor with lord_alucard and I at the previous year's first big forensics meet. They recognized me and told me how hilarious I was as King Arthur in our abridged adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I went home feeling pretty fantastic.
The second greatest show -- pushed out of the #1 spot only by my personal devotion to Johns Flansburgh and Linnell -- happened this last Saturday night when thetick27 and I drove down to Chicago to the Auditorium Theatre to see Zappa Plays Zappa: a tribute to Frank Zappa led by his eldest son Dweezil. To Tick and me, this was an opportunity not to be passed up.
The house was packed with the most diverse concert audience I've ever seen, which makes sense, I guess. Frank's career major spanned three decades, more than seventy albums, and every genre you can think of, including rock 'n' roll, classical, fusion jazz, doo wop, ska, proto-rap, and electronica -- often on the same album. His catalog is varied to an impenetrable degree, but anybody (seriously, even you) with enough patience to sift through his work could put together a satisfying two-disc mix, regardless of their tastes. The sheer volume and gallimaufry of Frank Zappa's catalog makes him the composer of both the most beautiful melodies and most unlistenable noise I've ever heard in my life. His refusal to stick with a single genre makes him most terminally misunderstood composer I can think of, and that's really sad to those of us who know both Frank's music and the criticisms and classifications that have been applied to it.
The children of celebrities often seem to grow up with little concept of their parents' fame, but the Zappa kids -- who are all creatively mobile enough that they no longer rely on their father's name -- have regularly demonstrated that they appreciate and understand his work. Dweezil has been as important a proponent of that legacy as anybody, and is the best person I can think of to organize a Zappa tribute project. He has connections to Frank's friends and former bandmates, and his good rapport (and occasional collaboration) with his father means that their guitar-playing styles are very similar, he understands the nuances of the music, and he is hereditarily entitled (as much as anyone can be) to interpret the music on his own.
Anyway, the show opened with a projected video clip of a live performance from 1973 of Frank Zappa and the Mothers performing Montana and Dupree's Paradise, which immediately segued into an instrumental piece which I should probably have recognized but didn't. Following that were several Zappa standards from his early career -- Hungry Freaks Daddy, Let's Make the Water Turn Black, and The Idiot Bastard Son, to name a few. The selections progressed chronologically, but focused primarily on the early to mid '70s, which most Zappa fans consider to be the qualitative peak of his career. They did big, popular songs that we would recognize; not necessarily the singles, but the tracks that stood out on their albums.
For me, the big highlight of the show was Cheepnis, Frank's ode to ultra-cheap monster movies ("can you all see the little strings on the giant spider and The Zipper from the Black Lagoon?"). It's a well-liked song, but one had not I expected to hear. I also appreciated Florentine Pogen, which is one of those absolutely brilliant pieces of music that ended up wedged unassumingly between the more recognizable tracks on its album. I was very pleased to hear the latter, less-popular half of the epic Don't Eat the Yellow Snow, and Montana, which is the only dental floos-faming song I can think of.
At one point, Dweezil invited a friend named Ellis to come up onstage. Ellis turned out to be a little boy, probably ten or eleven, "who likes the song with the words 'guacamole queen.'" Ellis stood onstage while the band played Inca Roads, which visibly thrilled him immensely.
There were eight people in the band proper. I couldn't name them and they played so many different instruments that it would be pointless to list the usual sort of "so-and-so played X and thus-and-such played Y", but I feel safe saying that it was a typical rock band setup complimented by a xylophone and a horn section. The vocals were done mostly by Napoleon Murphy Brock, who collaborated with Zappa in the '70s and '80s. I'd read somewhere that you can tell when he's onstage that he's a pretentious rectum (not the exact word that was used), but I think whomever wrote that must not be used to watching performers enjoy themselves. Later, the show was joined by special guests Terry Bozzio (drummer with The Mothers between '75 and '78) and Steve Vai (yes, that Steve Vai). Vai and Bozzio mostly played on songs from the album Sheik Yerbouti, which are popular but not my favorites. I did, however, enjoy The Black Page (written especially for Bozzio, and named for the visual density of its percussion part), and the teenage infatuation anthem, Punky's Whips.
I was a little disappointed that the program didn't cover any of Zappa's later work, but that's sort of understandable. None of the songs they performed were originally released later than 1979, around which point Frank started working with the incomparably versatile vocalist Ike Willis. I'm guessing, based on the high popularity of some of that material (Joe's Garage, You Are What You Is, Easy Meat...) that they 1979 was a deliberate cutoff point, and that they were trying not to step on Willis' toes. Other songs from that era were extremely politically topical. And of course, there's the fact that Zappa became very interested in electronic music and released a lot of material in the '80s and early '90s which is not generally well-liked by the people who fell in love with his guitar work. That's some of my favorite music, but it's not conducive to live performance. Today I learned that a couple of favorites (specifically Camarillo Brillo) had been played elsewhere, but not in Chicago. Oh, well.
As long as I'm (sort of) complaining I was also not terribly thrilled with the people sitting around us. Behind me was a guy who kept screaming "RUUUUTH!" during the first twenty minutes or so of the performance. Presumably he was yelling for Ruth Underwood, Frank's former xylophonist. Perhaps he thought that he could summon her, or make the other xylophonist magically turn into her. Either way, it didn't work. Eventually he stopped yelling "RUUUUTH!" and joined the uh, gentlemen next to Tick who had to scream every time they recognized a song -- as if the band could hear them from the balcony. Then of course, there were the lights... I have no idea what was wrong with the lighting crew, but they kept Dweezil in the spotlight though he was desperately trying to showcase the other musicians. A couple of times a spot abruptly turned on and off as if someone had made and corrected a mistake, and other times the light was highlighting an empty portion of the stage.
The show closed with a few of Zappa's most gorgeous, best-liked pieces, including Peaches en Regalia and Sofa. The encore opened with The Orange County Lumber Truck (a favorite of mine), and closed with Trouble Every Day.
There was a standing ovation (there were a couple, actually). We didn't stick around to see if anybody would be coming out to sign things (I'm sure they would have, but we'd have been waiting for quite awhile). Tick and I both grabbed too much swag, headed back to his van, and spent the ride home gushing to each other about the show was we listened to the recording he'd made on an MP3 player. For shame!
I totally want a copy.