Frank Zappa is one of the greatest and most interesting musicians America has produced. From 1966 until he died in 1993, he released dozens of albums bending various musical genres around his acerbic wit. FZ’s M.O., as I understand it, basically was to trick people into consuming high art by dressing it up as low art. His bands were one part orchestra, one part Foley studio, and one part rock & roll outfit. Creating the appearance of radical spontaneity on stage or in the recording studio merely was a crowning achievement of what undoubtedly was a very organized process. Zappa may have held extreme political views, but he was no anarchist. In light of the complexity of the music and the number of people it took to make it, everything– even kazoo honks and beach ball bounces– had to be carefully composed, or the project wouldn’t work. Was radical spontaneity involved in the initial generation of the ideas the songs would convey? Surely, and that’s what made these songs exciting and (attractively) dangerous to fans: even though the execution of these concepts necessarily was an orderly process, it still was Frank at the helm, and the audience didn’t know how far he would push the limits or if he’d steer them entirely off the rails.
All of that is what makes it a little bit difficult to digest what Dweezil Zappa is up to. Frank’s second child is the only one who seems to have inherited any of his father’s musical ability (having Steve Vai as a guitar teacher probably helped too), though credit to Diva, Frank’s youngest daughter, for securing a job running Billy Bob Thornton’s concert lyrics teleprompter. For years, Dweezil led a band called Zappa Plays Zappa, which was exactly what it sounds like. He believes it’s up to him to keep his father’s music alive. Legal disputes between him and his siblings and mother recently forced him to drop the ZPZ name, leading him to rename his current tour “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%K He Wants, The Cease and Desist 2016 Fall Tour.”
Whatever it’s called, this is, at its essence, a Frank Zappa cover/tribute band. In my book of musical taxonomy, that usually is not a compliment, although exceptions exist. Unfortunately, the negative aspects of cover-band performance were on display during the opening third of the performance we caught at the Variety Playhouse on Monday.
Beginning with a focus on FZ’s first album, 1966’s Freak Out!, Dweezil ran his crew through a lot of those dissonant bells and whistles that, as discussed above, sound spontaneous but really aren’t. Serious fans in the audience made known their approval of the five-decade callbacks, but I have to think that, for many, this start fell flat, or, at least, felt a bit empty. If the performer feels the need to remind the audience that the fifty-year-old music was “really subversive” and, in his election-eve opinion, still is, some of the subversive effect may have been lost. There are no meaningful risks in replicating orchestrated zaniness and, therefore, little excitement.
Fortunately, things opened up after that, and Dweezil and his band were able to exhibit their excellent musical chops. Beginning with two soulfully extended dueling saxophone solos and continuing with guest appearances from two local guitar players who had histories with Frank, the remainder of the concert was exploratory, deep, and very enjoyable. Humor and fun weren’t excluded, but the high-quality music was prioritized, to excellent effect. What FZ had to disguise from a less discerning populace in decades past now can be brought to the fore. Today, people will line up for good music on their own; they don’t need shiny objects and foul language to catch their eyes.
I left the performance of two minds regarding this band’s identity as a Frank Zappa cover/tribute band. Tribute bands likely always will present a mental hurdle for me that, in many cases, will make it very difficult to enjoy their performances. I also agree with the premise of Dweezil’s mission, that his father’s music is worth preserving in the live-performance context, however, and I think that a dedicated band like his is the right vehicle to advance that mission. Performing this music requires focused commitment, and, in the absence of Dweezil’s band, it doesn’t seem likely that any other group would or really could undertake that effort. Really, this is a worthy public service, and one that benefits from Dweezil’s passion for his work. (To anyone who doubts that passion I commend Dweezil’s appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast back in the spring.)
A final note from Monday is directed to the venue. This was our first visit to the Variety Playhouse since its interior remodeling, and while the place seems, in general, much nicer and cleaner, changes in the balcony have rendered most of the upstairs seating completely useless. The low grade of the slope of the new seats there means that, unless you’re in the front row or willing to stand in the back row, you’re going to spend the night staring at the back of somebody’s head, which is not the preferred experience.
With that, I’ll leave you with a very clear sight line on my favorite Frank Zappa live concert clip: