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.
Chic were the perfect opener for Double D, a treat for the ears not to be missed. Personally selected by Duran Duran as their openers, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers rocked the early birds to full attention. Nile Rodgers said it himself, “we’re here to make you move!” and they did just that. Chic opened their set with a trio of 70s classics, “Everybody Dance,” “Dance Dance Dance” and “I Want Your Love.” Kimberly Davis on lead vox powered through those funk and r&b classics with flair and grace. She was on key, soulful, and soared above the band with elegance and power. Folami Ankoanda provided additional supporting and lead vocals, fleshing out the diva harmonies while making it sound like there were several women up there doing backgrounds. Davis and Ankoanda weren’t the only high quality talent, everyone in that group shined, from the horn players to the keys, to the rhythm section. Their drummer and bass player were unstoppable and the grooves were infectious. Chic was always known for having a powerhouse rhythm section. The legendary Tony Thompson and Bernard Edwards held the drumkit and bass positions with Chic during their heyday. Post Chic, Tony Thompson would go on to perform with Power Station (a Duran Duran related side project with Robert Palmer on vocals) as well as Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and Diana Ross, amongst many others. Bernard Edwards would become a prolific writer and producer, like Nile Rodgers, and go on to work with Debbie Harry, Norma Jean Wright, Sister Sledge and Diana Ross. Sadly, both legends passed away before their time due to illness: Thompson due to Kidney Cancer and Edwards due to Pneumonia. Current drummer and bassist, Ralph Rolle and Jerry Barnes, are bad-ass performers themselves, moving the Chic train along with an unrelenting rumble. Section by section, the crowd at Irvine Meadows got into the groove and the venue became one huge dance party, with the ultimate house band providing the beats. If you weren’t dancing or singing along, then you were at least smiling or wondering “what the hell’s going on?….this is cool!” At the close of the trio of Chic classics, Nile Rodgers explained that he had written and produced a number of Diana Ross tracks and they were going to launch into a medley. The group pulled off bitchin’ renditions of “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” then melting into Sister Sledge classics “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.” It was cool seeing so many people respond to these 70s classics, showing those songs are just as vital and relevant now as they were when they were first recorded. The crowd surprised Rodgers before “I’m Coming Out.” Rodgers prepped the audience by teaching us the chorus, but the crowd beat him to it, singing the “…I want the world to know, got to let it shooow” part. Rodgers was all smiles.
The part of the set that sold me and made me a fan was the group’s soulful and devastatingly awesome version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” This track was originally sung by Pharell Williams. Kim Davis and the rest of the group laid down an especially moving and funky version of the song. Russell Graham began the song on keyboards, delicately laying down the opening chords, whole notes, while Rodgers introduced the song and shared his cancer experience. Rodgers began his story with a polite “I don’t mean to bring you down…” as he shared his story about his cancer diagnosis over five year ago. It was an aggressive form of prostate cancer with a very poor prognosis. His physician advised him to “get his affairs in order.” Rogers expressed that for him personally, getting his affairs in order meant writing, recording, and touring more than he’d ever done before, including the session with Daft Punk and Pharell Williams. Rodgers said “So after that series of wonderful phone calls, we wrote this song called “Get Lucky,” and I feel like the luckiest man in the world tonight because I’m here with you and five and half years later, I’m cancer free…and we’re STILL funky. So every song that we play in our set is a song that I’ve written, and produced, or whatever, with somebody else or another artist, every one of these songs that you hear is a song that I’ve done. We are not a covers band, this is all my music. However, however there is one little catch, when we play these songs we always play ’em CHIC style, because, we are an R&B, funk, disco, dance band, and that’s just what the Hell we do. We wanna make you move! So we put a little extra soul into everything we do. Kimberly…show ’em what we talkin’ about, girl…” And then Kim Davis softly croons the opening lines “Like the legend of the Phoenix…” Many in the crowd were likely misty eyed or shed a tear. It was a powerful moment and Kim Davis continued to soar higher and higher, taking the chorus up an octave, singing from the gut, outsinging Williams’ performance on record. And the rest of the band joined in and delivered a thumpin’ version complete with horns and a keyboard solo by Graham. THIS was the way the song was meant to be performed, full of heart, with a female vocalist that could sing the hell out of this tune, plus a drummer with a killer backbeat. The previous numbers were good, great even. But this was the WOW moment, the moment we realized we were witnessing greatness. The next WOW moment came when Rodgers introduced his drummer, Ralphe Rolle, and shared that he had the pleasure of working with David Bowie in the early 80s. To those who don’t know, Nile Rodgers produced Bowie’s Let’s Dance album and Tony Thompson performed much of the drum work on it. Bernard Edwards played bass on “Without You.” Rodgers shared that he walked into a bar (he was with Billy Idol), and they found Bowie sitting in a corner. They talked shop and eventually got together for the Let’s Dance sessions. Rodgers added that live, he normally gives the responsibility of singing the most difficult song to the new drummer. Rolle said hello to the audience and the group tore into a perfect rendition of “Let’s Dance,” with Rolle drumming and providing lead vocals, successfully channeling David Bowie’s baritone. He even did those 8th notes on the woodblock during the pre-verse sections. The horns added extra color and funk and the crowd stayed on it’s feet. Chic’s set just went into the stratosphere. And it didn’t stop there! After a blistering Bowie song, the group launched into the Chic standard, “Le Freak.” And I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Toy Story 3, where Ken is trying on outfits for Barbie..ahhhh FREAK OUT!. And then the holy sh*t/WOW moment came when the group slid into their final number, “Good Times.” Keep in mind that the rhythm track to “Good Times” is the foundation for Sugar Hill Gang’s hip-hop classic, “Rapper’s Delight.” That bass line is one of the greatest hooks ever. If you’re not familiar with the tune, think back to that scene in The Wedding Singer where the little old lady (Ellen Albertini Dow) is rapping with Robbie Hart’s backing band. THAT’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Chic performed a very funkilicious version of “Good Times” which led to a bass solo by Jerry Barnes and a call and response section by Rodgers i.e. ‘woo-oooh, woo-oooh, now everyone screeaam!!!’ And then the keys, guitar and vocals rested, leaving only Barnes to play that bass hook with Ralphe Rolle backing him up on drums. Rodgers said “Feeeeel that old school grooove!” The duo continued for a couple bars. I turned to my wife and said “Ok, someone needs to start rapping.” Two more measures later and Rodgers busts out with “I said a hip..hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop, you don’t stop a rock it” and the crowd went freaking nuts. I was joyfully cracking up, not really believing what I was seeing. Rodgers and the group continued for a good while, it was an awesome spin on “Rapper’s Delight,” and people joined in on the rhyming. Kim Davis even did the “saaay whaaaaat?”part. And then the group transitioned back into “Good Times,” with the keys, slinky guitar and female vocals pulling the song back together. Holy f*cking shit! And so ended Chic’s stellar set. The group received a standing ovation. They gave so many people so much joy this evening. My mom was a teen in the 70s and she loves this stuff. I thought to myself, “Wow, my mom’s music is pretty damn cool.”
- Everybody Dance
- Dance Dance Dance
- I Want Your Love
- I’m Coming Out/Upside Down/He’s the Greatest Dancer/We Are Family
- Get Lucky
- Let’s Dance
- Le Freak
- Good Times/Rapper’s Delight/Good Times reprise
It was great to finally witness Duran Duran live. They were freaking DURAN DURAN. Video pioneers, pop giants, fashion icons, etc. etc. And they at one time had one of the greatest guitar players in their lineup, Warren Cuccurullo. I was too young to experience the Duran Duran mania of the early and mid 80s. What sold me was The Wedding Album in the 90s, “Ordinary World” in particular. I had been wanting to see Double D since around 2000. I REALLY wanted to see them around 2005 when all 5 original members reunited. The classic lineup reunion was short-lived and a session guitarist, Dom Brown has filled in on subsequent albums and tours. Dom Brown isn’t a bad guitar player. But what’s missing is that bitchin’ Andy Taylor tone and his knack for executing his guitar parts with style and flair. Watch the Live in London DVD and you’ll hear what I mean. Personally, I would have begged Warren Cuccurullo to come back as the 5th member of the group. But no, we have Dom Brown, and I suppose 4 out of 5 original members ain’t bad. Fast forward to early July 2016, the band announced that founding member, Nick Rhodes, would be taking a temporary leave from the group’s touring schedule to attend to family matters. Nick’s fill-in keyboard player would be MNDR, a Mark Ronson collaborator and adventurous singer/songwriter/producer in her own right. Damn it. Now we were down to 3 original members. It could be worse, but for me, the gig had lost a bit of its luster. Now what made this gig and this tour great was the fact that Duran Duran were on the road in support of the very well received Paper Gods. Nile Rodgers himself had a hand in the production of the album. Red Hot Chili Pepper alumnus and melody master John Frusciante played some guitar on the album! The band brought it with this release, and the tour showed that they weren’t a nostalgia act living off past glories. Duran Duran was earning critical praise on every tour stop, proving they could construct a set that represented their new musical chapter while showcasing their storied history, without an over-reliance on classic material. It was the perfect combination of new and old, and the new stuff complemented the older tracks astonishingly well. The set itself was around 90 minutes in length, 18 songs or so, with 4 of the new tracks off Paper Gods included.
While DD is often remembered as a “keyboard group,” their secret weapon is their rhythm section. Bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor are the groove masters of the band. They are tasteful dance-rock/funk players with an excellent ear for hooks and signature parts. And then of course there’s the voice. Simon Lebon is a crooner in a league of his own, a golden, signature voice. Simon’s sweet spot is the range he uses for songs like “Wild Boys” and “Notorious,” it’s that silky tone with a bit of raspiness to it. The group was in good form, festive, and joyfully laid down their parts. It was a very good performance, but I unfairly compared it to their performance on the Live in London DVD, they were firing on all cylinders on that gig and I rather naively expected the same kind of fireworks at this show. I forget that they’re short 2 original members and that London gig took place a decade ago, yikes. It was still a very strong performance and we were thrilled. It was a potent set around 100 minutes long. The selfish, rabid fan in me always hopes for more, but this set time was just enough to introduce the audience to the new music while showering us with some classics without losing the fans with short attention spans. Of special note were the performances with Nile Rodgers on guitar. He came out to play on “Notorious” and “Pressure Off.” A tribute to David Bowie was included midset. The group inserted a section of “Space Oddity” into “Planet Earth,” making for a very cool and musically appropriate medley. A snippit of “New Moon On Monday” was included in “Reach Up For the Sunrise.” Several key tracks from the group’s back catalogue were represented, including “A View To a Kill,” “The Reflex,” I Don’t Want Your Love,” “Wild Boys,” “Girls On Film,” “Come Undone,” “Ordinary World,” and three tracks from the Rio album including the title track and “Hungry Like the Wolf.” The final song of the night was “Save a Prayer,” also off Rio. Before the group began “Save a Prayer,” Simon LeBon addressed the crowd and said “Now every week we hear these tragic horror stories, things that go on, I mean France has suffered very badly in the last year, what with the truck at the market in Nice, and the Bataclan in November….the Charlie Hebdo office terrorist attack, as well as the things happening in Germany…and never mind the awful stuff that’s happening in Syria and Iraq, innocent people being killed. And we are fed a lot of this stuff and it gets quite depressing at times, and it takes a lot of strength in yourself to hold onto your sense of optimism. Now I know that you guys are optimists and believe in good. I know that because the other kind of people don’t come to rock concerts, music is something that brings people together, it crosses the boundaries of race, sex, color, religion, money! Music is something which makes people feel better about themselves.” Simon dedicated their last number, “Save a Prayer,” to those who believe that good will win. “Save a Prayer,” LeBon referenced Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” as the song drew to a close. I hate to admit it, but months later I’m still thinking about Chic’s set. They had completely won me over and I still fondly think back to their performance. DD wasn’t bad at all, but for some reason their set didn’t resonate with me like I’d hoped it would. Maybe it had to do with Nick Rhodes’ absence. The other lacking ingredient was John Taylor’s backing vocals. The group employed female backing singers for this tour and they took over most of the harmonies. Usually, it’s John that fills in on the harmonies but he took a break from this set, focusing on his bass playing. I missed that voice. It was still a wonderful night out and I’m thankful and grateful that we got to see two of the greatest pop-funk groups in the business. Later I found out the group performed “The Chauffeur” at the Las Vegas gig. Damn it.