The first Frank Zappa song I ever head was “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” I was attending college at the time and broadening my musical horizons. This introduction to the Zappa Universe was thanks to a certain infamous file sharing program. The first time I heard this bizarre, hysterical and musically acrobatic “song,” I think I stared at my computer screen and blinked, not knowing what the hell just happened. I dove into this music thanks to the likes of Steve Vai, Warren Cuccurullo and Dream Theater. And any song that begins with “Dreamed I was an Eskimo” had to be crazy special and deviously clever. It was, and it was merely a preview of the eccentric brilliance that was out there in the Zappa catalogue. Several purchases later and a couple chance encounters with Mike Keneally and Steve Vai (a Martin Guitar Clinic and NAMM appearance), I found myself itching to somehow experience Zappa’s music in a live setting. Behold, Zappa Plays Zappa is born, brainchild of Dweezil Zappa.
This leg of the tour was in part a celebration of the Freak Out! album and entitled “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants – The Cease and Desist Tour.” The name of the tour is a response to the trademark dispute that has occurred between Dweezil Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust (Ahmet Zappa/Executor). The trust ordered that Dweezil cease using the “Zappa Plays Zappa” moniker and to cease using images of his father, Frank Zappa, on all merchandizing. The details of this dispute can be found elsewhere and it’s a very sad read. Frank Zappa passed away in 1993 and left a mountain of a musical legacy behind. He was regarded as a genius, an avant-garde innovator that was never afraid to break the rules. He was also one hell of a guitar player. Dweezil Zappa has carried on this legacy by presenting the music of Frank Zappa at his live shows. It is only fitting that Dweezil, an accomplished guitarist in his own right, honor that heritage and with stellar musicians, many of whom were part of incarnations of Frank’s touring bands. For this touring cycle, the group would present selections including songs from Freak Out!, the debut album by The Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s first rock combo.
The Freak Out! tracks are the wackiest, and yet some of the most brilliant music pieces you’ll ever experience. It didn’t sound like anything that was around at the time and still doesn’t sound like anything that’s out now. It’s freaky, complex, intricate, fun, jazzy, zany, it grooves, it boogies, it rocks, it sways, and it’s just one giant amalgamation of bizarre sound and eccentric brilliance. The vocals dart from spoken word narration, to lounge singing, to doo-wop, to soulful crooning, and on and on and on. It’s madness. But there’s something amazingly entertaining and musical about it. Only a certain breed of power musicians can pull off this crazy, impossible to play music with heart AND expert precision. The current line-up is no exception. They’re like musical super heroes. The Zappa musicians have always been untouchable players and unusual characters: Odd, weird, funky, freaky, cool, but above all…freaking geniuses. And at the core of this line up is a mellow and low-key guitarist in jeans and a black V-neck, armed with a gentle smile and a Gibson SG. There’s a calmness and serenity to Dweezil when he’s onstage, it’s spellbinding watching him, seeing him lay down his parts with nurturing care, then seeing how he glances over at his bandmates with equal parts pride and a quiet joy.
Zappa Plays Zappa is no stranger to Fresno. Fortunately for us, the group has performed in this area once or twice previously. Kudos to the group and booking agents for not forsaking our little neck of the woods. From the moment the group came onstage we knew we were in for an unmatched experience, variety and virtuosity. From the netherworldly bounce of “Transylvania Boogie,” to the vocal hilarity and madness of “It Can’t Happen Here,” the soulful “How Could I Be Such a Fool?” to the creepy waltz of “Who Are the Brain Police?,” it was an insanely wild roller coaster ride. During a pause, many in the audience began shouting song titles. Someone shouted “Watermelon!” Dweezil with a playful smirk said something like “Requests? You’ know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna stick to the fucking setlist, that’s what we’re gonna do,” and the group powered on. David Luther on lead vocals, guitar, keys, and bary sax, was an eerily perfect match for this group. That deep voice is a striking resemblance to Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Frank Zappa’s vocal style. “It Can’t Happen Here” is a great example of that zany vocal delivery. “What Will This Evening Bring Me This Morning?” saw vocalists Cian Coey and Scheila Gonzalez harmonize and sing the hell out of that song. It was an exercise in power soul. The set had transitioned from Freak Out! era tracks to 200 Motels. And then the band reduced itself to a power trio, with Dweezil, Ryan Brown and Kurt Morgan ripping into a bitchin’ version of “Apostrophe,” the title track of the same album. You could feel and hear the great Jim Gordon and Jack Bruce in their playing. Bassist, Kurt Morgan, was awesome to watch. His facial expressions, nonverbals, mannerisms, his movements onstage. The way he curled his lips and bobbed his head when he locked into a tight, thunderous groove. And damn, no one, I mean NO ONE can rock cargo shorts and orange socks like that man. Throughout the concert, Kurt was playing insane bass parts, singing backgrounds, AND having an incredibly euphoric time while doing it. You could see the musical joy on that man’s face. And the way he played that bass during “Apostrophe,” I’m amazed those strings didn’t fuse onto the fretboard with all the kinetic energy and heat going on. About drumming power-house Ryan Brown, wow, everyone in this group has a legacy of big shoes to fill. The drummers in all the Zappa groups have always had the distinction of being an “it” guy, drummer’s drummers. One has to continue a legacy built upon and including Jimmy Carl Black, Ansley Dunbar, Vinnie Colaiuta, Terry Bozzio, Ed Mann, Chester Thompson, Chad Wackerman and Joe Travers. Bottom line, the drummer had better be a bad ass drummer. Ryan was able to easily channel the spirits of all the Zappa alums that came before him, and laid down a kicking groove while keeping all the intricacies and nuances needed to pull off those complex parts. And then there’s the striking Scheila Gonzalez, who can’t be a real person.She has to be some kind of musical virtuoso android fem-bot sent from the future. She’s an accomplished, award winning multi-instrumentalist, able to play flute, sax, keys, and sing like her life depended on it. She possesses a powerful voice, husky and throaty, and it gels well with Cian Coey’s raspy yet soulful diva vocals. Main keyboard player and violinist Chris Norton brought it all together, gluing the group together and anchoring it with complex leads and great background singing as well. KILLER line-up. At one point during the set, Dweezil made reference to these songs, the bizarre qualities of the music and how it all must have freaked out parents in the 60s. Dweezil expressed “This isn’t music from the past, it’s music from the future. We just haven’t caught up with it yet.” The group continued to faithfully execute pieces like “Inca Roads,” “Zomby Woof,” “Doreen/You Are What You Is,” “Keep It Greasy,” “Packard Goose,” and of course the lovely and tender closer to Joe’s Garage (and my biggest reason for attending this concert), “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” It gently murmurs its way into the world, delicate and dreamy, with a guitar tone that borders between space rock and surf rock (think of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”). I have this deeply sentimental connection to that song. When I think of that melody, I think of my young kids, and snapshots of the joy and color of their growing up comes to mind, I’m not sure why. The song is regarded by many, including Dweezil, as Frank Zappa’s greatest guitar solo. There are several videos showing a composed yet emotional Dweezil Zappa, performing that song with great care and reverence as tears roll down his face. I think this Fresno gig had him just as nostalgic. Side note: Duran Duran performed a version of this song during a 1994 New York City concert, with Warren Cuccurullo on guitar (a Zappa alumnus, kind of young, kind of wow). The show continued with encores and the final closer, “Muffin Man.” This was an insanely great concert, performed by master musicians. It deepened my appreciation for Zappa’s brand of weird but devastatingly awesome music. I’m so fortunate I was able to see these guys close to home. If you have even the slightest inclination to go see this group, please do, you won’t regret it. Just watch out where the huskies go.