So I went to see Dweezil Zappa last night (courtesy of my friend Pema). I'm a long time Frank Zappa fan having got hooked after I heard Titties and Beer when I was 14. It was always going to be a big ask for DZ to go on the road playing his Dad's music. FZ was a big personality, and a prodigious talent who wrote everything from Doowop through rock anthems to complex orchestral works. His composing motto was "anything, any time, anywhere, for no reason at all". He combined serious music and serious musicianship with humour and pastiche, and social observation. FZ died in 1993 from cancer and these Zappa Plays Zappa concerts are to keep FZ's music alive by playing it - a feat not every musician is capable of.
DZ (a youthful looking 42) hits the stage with 7 friends who are all crack musicians - they all play extremely well, all sing, and some are multi-instrumentalists. He's pretty laid back. In fact one of the features of the show is the lack of hype - it's all about the music. The lights are minimal, and there are no props; there is no face pulling, pose striking, or coordinated dancing. Just 2.5 hours of excellent music, played with excellence. A typical FZ show featured tightly scripted, statistically dense, and demanding musical performances, virtuoso soloing from all the players, and a certain amount of musical theatre in a Dada vein. DZ and friends certainly provided the first two, but the more theatrical aspects of FZ's shows is less in evidence. The ZPZ shows are about the music of FZ, not the ego of DZ.
My one beef is that the Corn Exchange venue seemed to amplify the bottom end to the point where it swamped everything. It was often hard to hear the singers especially the bass voice of lead singer Ben Thomas. It was also difficult to hear the bass guitar which was really problematic in tunes like Apostrophe where Pete Griffin had extensive solos.
After warming up with the Gumbo Variations (featuring a wailing sax solo by Scheila Gonzalez) the band played through the Apostrophe album in it's entirety. This was where the mushy and indistinct vocals told since the words are important on most of these tracks! But the band played this album almost note perfect and it was great to hear it brought to life. The solo in Cosmik Debris was played by none other than FZ himself via a video from a show from about that time (ca 1974-5). It was moving to see FZ playing along like that.
The videos - used sparingly, only 3 times, gave us an opportunity to see FZ's guitar technique. He showed every sign of being self-taught. The contrast with DZ who learned from master Steve Vai was striking. DZ's soloing technique is smooth, and shows an economy of motion and fluidity that FZ clearly lacked. But the sound that FZ makes is no less astounding for it. His left hand is jerky, makes large almost flapping motions, and stabs about the place. But he is so very agile and fast that the awkward looking technique translates into the blistering guitar playing that FZ is rightly famous for. As a guitarist myself I found this aspect of the show fascinating. Syncing the live and video sounds was perfect and hats off to the technicians for that!.
The lack of showmanship was at times, ironically, a distraction. There was sometimes a sense that the band were going through the motions. There is no doubt that the motions are amazing, but these are songs from before they were all born and I wonder briefly if their hearts are in it. It may be because this album is may all time favourite and I know it so well. In any case this sense is dispelled by the first track which follows the Apostrophe tracks: the instrumental Echinda's Arf (cf. another ZPZ band http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvUaJbosZj4
) The band seemed to come to life in this complex and ever changing FZ classic, and the lack of vocal clarity mattered a lot less in the instrumentals. From I found the band more engaging, perhaps because the tunes allowed for much more room to improvise.
The set list leaned towards the early part of FZ's career. Tracks from Chunga's Revenge, One Size Fits All, and We're Only in It for the Money (1968), but taking in Live in New York and an encore set drawing mainly on Sheik Yerbouti (Dancin' Fool and Baby Snakes).
Overall it was a good night out. It was refreshing to see a show that was about the music, and to hear interesting music well played. There were some stunning guitar solos including one very inventive one by second guitarist Jamie Kime. It's a bit sad that Health & Safety concerns prevented an on stage dance contest (let's not say "H&S Law" because there is not law against it) but people did stand up and dance especially in the encore - which drew heavily on the disco genre.
And the highlight? I think terms of playing it was Echind'a Arf, but actually the best bit was after the music. After the last track DZ came down to the front of the stage to talk to the crowd. He started signing autographs, and was chatting away. I stayed around and got an autographed flier for DZ's new solo album (where does he find the time?) and thanked him personally for keeping his father's music alive. He seemed relaxed and gracious, like a kind of anti-rock star. After 2.5 hours on stage DZ seemed happy to spend another half hour or more meeting his Dad's fans. I was really moved by this. Being a long term fan I know how fanatical some of us are, and about the cult of FZ. DZ is not his father, but he and I share a mutual love and respect for FZ. I think he did his father proud last night both musically and personally.
I came away feeling as though I had seen and heard the next best thing to an FZ concert. Feeing warm towards DZ for his dedication and apparent selflessness. But a little melancholy as well as FZ is not longer with us, and my Dad died 2 years before he did. I could not help but feel a bit small in comparison to DZ who keeps his father's legacy alive with a combination of fervour and grace. Thanks for the ticket Pema.