Friday night Kathy and I went to see Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa at the Music Box theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. In case you haven’t heard about what Dweezil is doing, he’s put together a band of crack musicians (not musicians on crack), who perform the music of Frank Zappa, just as written.
You may have heard of Frank Zappa, and know a lyric line from one of his songs (probably “Titties and Beer” or “Valley Girl”), and dismissed him as merely a scribbler of profane lyrics. He was much more than that. For one thing, he was a great composer. Don’t take my word for it; the classical composer and noted conductor Pierre Boulez says so, and he conducted some of Zappa’s classical works, which were composed near the end of Zappa’s life.
Aside from his classical works, the music his various bands performed has been studied and admired by generations of musicians. Zappa was famous for putting together some of the best musicians on the planet, and challenging them with compositions that pushed them to their limits. His songs often contained musical jokes, where he took a recognizable riff from a popular artist and had fun with it. Plus he was one heck of a satirist and storyteller.
Dweezil’s band focuses on the music Frank recorded with his various bands. He had the challenge of putting together a band that could actually play Frank’s music, and of learning the ridiculously hard guitar parts himself. He had the benefit of a catalog of music spanning three decades, with many die-hard fans and pent-up demand to hear the music performed again. To put it in business terms, Dweezil had a strong “brand”, but when a new person tries to carry a brand forward, there is always a danger that the brand may be seen as cheapened.
I had seen Dweezil and the Zappa Plays Zappa band twice before, and he has always done a credible job with the music. He always looked great (he bears a strong resemblance to David Krumholz of Numb3rs fame). His parts were well-executed, and the rest of the band is amazing. Most of the same players have been playing with him for years. The arrangements were flawlessly executed, and they achieved the technological feat of having Frank make a few appearances on a video screen during the show to play and sing along with the band. I always left feeling like I got a very good and satisfying show, but I thought that Dweezil didn’t quite measure up to Frank in his solos. That’s changed this time around. Dweezil, while not the same person as his father, was certainly at the same level in his playing, and Friday had one of the better guitar virtuoso performances I’ve seen.
Zappa Plays Zappa often has a musician who played with Frank as special guest, and the guest plays a few songs with the band. Friday, it was the amazing keyboard player George Duke. While many Zappa fans might also know him for his work with people like Billy Cobham and Stanley Clarke, George Duke had even greater success as a solo recording artist creating great R&B funk records. He is also a successful record producer.
We got tickets that let us watch the sound check before the show. It was a lot of fun to watch the band interact and figure out last-minute changes to the arrangements. George Duke was also there playing and getting his parts integrated. At one point he was really wailing during a solo, and a couple of the band members took out their cameras and took a picture of him. They were clearly fans. Interestingly, George has all of his keyboards painted flat grey, so he does not advertize what kind of keyboard he is using. He’s had that policy for more than 30 years.
The Music Box is an old Art Deco theatre. Inside the theatre, the walls have 40 foot high wallpaper that displays a famous image from the Hieronymus Bosch painting “Garden of Earthly Delights”, painted about 1490. It bore a certain resemblance to some of the surreal Zappa album covers.
Downstairs, the theatre has no seats on the main floor (there are booths on the side, but they offer a poor view of the stage). We opted to go up to the balcony, where we could get a seat, and have a great view of the stage. We managed to get the first row of balcony seating in the center section (the seating was not assigned).
The show was great from start to finish, and the balcony was the place to watch from. After opening with Gumbo Variations, they played all the songs from the Apostrophe album in the same sequence as the album. Released in 1974, it has always been my favorite Zappa album. Frank got the opportunity to record with lots of top musicians on that record, and it was a creative high point for him. Getting to hear George Duke play and sing live on Uncle Remus, which he co-wrote with Zappa, was a real treat. Cosmik Debris had Frank on video doing the vocals.
After that, they gave us another 8 songs, including RDNZL, Pygmy Twylyte, Inca Roads and City of Tiny Lights. George Duke played with them on a number of these. The encore included Baby Snakes, Chrissy Puked Twice (AKA Titties and Beer), and the Muffin Man, with Frank playing guitar on the final tune.
Leaving the show it occurred to me that Dweezil has achieved something his father never quite managed. Frank’s bands, several of which I got to see, had great musicians, but they were always experimenting to one degree or another. Dweezil has managed to take his band and the music into a more consistent and polished state, which is great for audiences. You really owe it to yourself to catch this great band at least once.