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Dweezil Zappa (Zappa Plays Zappa) @ The Tower Theater, Fresno CA 05/03/17

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.

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Buckethead @ The Tower Theater, Fresno CA 06/23/16

One of the weirder gigs I’d ever attended (weird in a good way), and definitely the most unique rock guitar instrumentalist I’d ever seen. Seriously, who is this guy!? Buckethead, better known to the IRS and his immediate family as Brian Patrick Carroll, is a sight to behold. He’s a lanky white guy with a mop of curly hair, with a Michael Myers mask and white bucket atop his head. He’s like a ghoulish apparition but with a gorgeous alpine white Les Paul Custom in his hands. Buckethead uses his own signature Gibson, a unique beauty with white pickups, no fret markings and red “arcade style” kill switches. It’s like there’s arcade buttons on that guitar. He’s a prolific recording artist and very well regarded within the guitar world, with connections and collaborations with acts like Iggy Pop, Bootsy Colllins, Guns N’ Roses, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, Mike Patton of Faith No More and Les Claypool of Primus. He’s released over 250 albums (!!!!!!) and composed and performed music for various films including Saw II, Ghosts of Mars, Last Action Hero, the Mortal Kombat movies, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers??? In short, Buckethead is…something else. And definitely jaw dropping.

Watching him onstage, he’s a cross between a ninja assassin, a robot dancing wiz, a guitar virtuoso…and Santa Claus. Not only can buckethead shred, but can do so while doing the robot. It sounds silly as hell at first. But seeing it in person just adds to the man’s funkiness and gloriously weird stage presence. And then there’s the nunchuk portion of the show. A martial-arts fan, Buckethead went into an impressive nunchuk routine while EDM music blasted in the background. Just like his guitar playing, Buckethead is a master at fluid motion and efficiency of motion, making his dance and nunchuk routines appear elegant and gravity defying. It was like watching an emotionless mannequin come to life. His fret work was just as fluid and precise, even at blazing speeds. Definitely one of the fastest players ever, Buckethead’s style of playing is more accessible, more groove oriented than the likes of Vai, Satriani, Gilbert or Petrucci. His guitar lines grooved, rocked, went up to the stratosphere, and came back down for lovely, soulfully melodic playing. The epitome of that magical combo was “Soothsayer,” prompting hoots, hollers, devil horns and a standing ovation at the end. That song slayed. It began with a gentle groove and a lovely arpeggio, then picked up momentum and went into a fist pumping groove and shred fest. But it wasn’t simply a rock instrumental. It was also an emotionally satisfying piece of music. Other tracks performed included Jowls, Gory Meat Stump, Jordan, Lebrontron, Buckethead and Friends, Giant Robot, as well as sections of John Williams’ Star Wars Theme, Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Pure Imagination from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The set was around 100 minutes total and included surprises like the audience coming up to the front to demo the kill switches on the Gibson. At another point in the show, Buckethead and a crew member pulled out a sack and handed random gifts and stuff to audience members. As far as the stage production goes, the man has little to no overhead. There’s no backing band, no elaborate light or video show, just the artist, the backline rig, and one guy with a pony tail. Buckethead’s the show, what more do you expect or need. The crowd was very diverse. I enjoyed chatting with the guy to my right, we talked about Santana and how he’d seen a show at the Fresno Fair Grounds back in ’88. It’s always cool to see the different t-shirts at shows like this, you get to see the love for other artists. I spotted tour shirts by Megadeth, Mastodon, Godsmack, Rush, and of course I wore my Dream Theater Astonishing Live shirt. About the venue, the Tower is essentially a seated concert hall with no balcony, classic movie theater set up with a moderne art deco design. The Tower Theater is a historical landmark and it’s the visual and symbolic anchor for the Tower District itself and surrounding neighborhood. It seats around 750. It was tough to say how full the venue was, not a sellout but there was definitely a strong turnout, impressive for this kind of niche artist, musician’s music as some have said. At $35, attending this show was a no-brainer.

Y&T @ The Tower Theater, Fresno CA 02/28/14

I must have been living under a rock all these years. It took a client of mine to introduce me to this criminally underrated group. One sunny afternoon in Woodlake, my client, a guy in his 40s, showed off his vinyl collection while his step-daughter (also a metal-head) was blasting Lamb of God’s “Laid to Rest” on their stereo. You have to understand, Woodlake is a little ville near the foothills, known as a back-water rodeo town. In this town you’re either listening to country or ranchera. So this household was like a dark, metallic mecca for those of us with a love for chunky guitar riffs, double bass drumming and screaming vocals. So in this glorious pile of records were LPs by Journey, Van Halen, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath…and Y&T. I was like, “Hey man, who’s Y&T?”

I found out they were Californians from the bay area who influenced the likes of Kirk Hammett and Joe Satriani. Now I HAD to see this group live. Guitarist/vocalist Dave Meniketti is only remaining original member, however the sound of this newer version of the group is more than faithful to the original lineup. It’s melodic hard rock: tunes that are easy to digest, with thumpin’ grooves, powerful riffage and accessible melodies all in the same package – GOOD rock n’ roll.  The rockers are energetic and fact paced while the slower tunes have a bluesy edge to them. Dave Meniketti has to be one of the most overlooked guitar masters of all time. AND he’s a kick-ass singer too. So not only can he play his ass off on guitar, but he can sing his ass off as well. You can hear Hendrix in his playing and you can also hear contemporary metal in their too. As for his singing, Dave is an olympian singer, able to do extraordinary things at his age that few singers in their 20s can do. He has this open, throaty, bluesy croon…equal parts Graham Bonnet, David Coverdale and Ronnie James Dio.

The theater was almost full and the crowd was very supportive – the valley rockers came out in force, fists raised and chanting “Y AND T! Y AND T!” The group got the party started right away, opening with two of their signature anthems, “Mean Streak” and “Don’t Stop Runnin.” Wow, what great riffs and vocals. This one-two punch was an awesome way to begin the show. I came in as a curious novice. After these two songs I was pumped and immediately won over – another fan chalked up for the Y&T army.

Dave said that the group was celebrating 40 years of making music since January 1974, cheekily saying “f*ck me, good thing I joined the band when I was 3!” Dave was very appreciative of the Fresno crowd, thanking us for coming out and saying “fuck it, we’ll do this another 10, 15 years so long as you guys keeping coming out.” The mix and live sound were absolutely PERFECT. There was lots of low end, never distorted or overbearing. The drum kit was practically singing, the kick and snare coming in with definition and presence, shaking the theater and powering the group nonstop. There was plenty of thump with a healthy amount of tone from the bass drum as well as mid range crack from the snare. The cymbal work was great too, with plenty of swells, rolls and intricate little patterns played by Mike Vanderhule, and the song endings were all extended showcases of musicianship by the group and vocal acrobatics by Dave. The guitars and bass all sounded great, crisp and clear. It never fails, someone is usually too high in the mix or using too much distortion, but not these guys. John Nymann on guitar was superb, as was Brad Lang on bass. AND they could actually sing, fleshing out the harmonies, providing great backing vocals for Dave. About Nymann and Dave’s guitar parts, I could hear their distinctive parts perfectly and they shimmered with clarity. Either the acoustics of the Tower Theater made for a magical sound, or these guys and their crew know pro audio and live sound engineering like the backs of their hands. Like I had mentioned about Dave’s vocals, they were fiery and bluesy, soaring at times then coming back down for husky growls and throaty howling. As a first timer I was very impressed by this group’s talent, energy, and love for playing live. This incarnation of the group has been together a while, and their interplay and performance was flawless, without a single clam. They’ve been doing it for years and they can probably do it in their sleep. Dave has taken good care of himself health-wise, he’s preserved his voice and I’d believe it if he practices several hours a day. Great singing, great chops, great group. Y&T constantly tours and they seem to hit California every February. Go see them again? Don’t have to ask me twice. The setlist was something like the following and by no means complete or in order, I’m still fairly new to this group.. I’m convinced that Don’t Stop Running was the second selection played. Corrections welcomed.

Mean Streak
Don’t Stop Runnin
Lonely Side of Town
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Midnight in Tokyo
Winds of Change
Dirty Girl
I Believe In You
Nasty Sadie
Contagious
I’ll Cry For You
I Want Your Money
Lipstick and Leather
Beautiful Dreamer
Rescue Me
Summertime Girls
Forever
Open Fire

Thanks to Claudine for the following pics. Great Blondie shirt by the way 🙂

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