Zappa Plays Zappa: Best Band He Never Heard in His Life
By NATE CHINEN
Published in the New York Times: June 14, 2006
The bad news is that the band featured in Zappa Plays Zappa, the sprawling tribute that touched down at the Beacon Theater on Monday night, was upstaged by an opening act. The good news is that the opening act was Frank Zappa.
No, he didn't materialize. But as the house lights darkened for some rarely seen video of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the Roxy in 1973, the effect was more than a little séancelike. There he was, a study in lanky gravity, deadpanning about dental floss on "Montana" and developing a corkscrew guitar solo on "Dupree's Paradise." The video ran longer than a half-hour, long enough for the audience to feel transported.
The guitarist Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa's son, knew exactly what he was doing when he arranged for this overture. Mr. Zappa has described his touring production as more than the first family-sanctioned salute to his father, who died in 1993. It's intended as an argument for Frank Zappa's legitimacy as a composer and as an outreach to a new generation of listeners.
On Monday it was all those things, to varying degrees. (The outreach was the least successful effort; most of the crowd looked old enough to have been at that Roxy show.) Mr. Zappa led a sharp assemblage of musicians in a program complete with harrowing intricacies, inscrutable grandiosities and several of his father's alumni as featured guests.
Chief among them was the saxophonist and flutist Napoleon Murphy Brock, who handled lead vocals for most of the night. Mr. Brock sounded comfortable even with the music's most angular intervals. And he was deliciously goofy and sardonic, often bounding or whirling about the stage.
Those energies helped compensate for Mr. Zappa's demeanor, which was serious, even studious, in tone. His lone attempt at conducting doubled as a dose of audience participation and underscored his father's superior authority in both areas.
But Mr. Zappa's guitar playing was duly impressive — he imbued "Inca Roads" with the proper combination of spacey atmosphere and feverish technique — and his careful organization of the concert was evident. Moreover, his egoless approach cleared a space for Mr. Brock and the other guests, the drummer Terry Bozzio and the guitarist Steve Vai.
Mr. Bozzio's natural showpiece was "Black Page," a drum feature originally composed with him in mind, and he handled its notorious convolutions — what Frank Zappa once called its "statistical density" — with power and flair. Mr. Vai was equally gripping, and more musical, on a medley of "Montana," a bucolic "Village of the Sun" and a tricky "Echidna's Arf (Of You)."
But again, the biggest guest was Frank Zappa himself, who reappeared onscreen more than three hours into the concert. This time he played a guitar solo on "Chunga's Revenge," and his son's musical coterie supported him, so to speak, with unobtrusive passion.
The tour runs through June 24. A list of dates can be found at