There’s the right way and the wrong way to pay tribute to a musical genius on stage. There’s the trite, predictable Queen + Paul Rodgers way – a shuddering mess that went for pure fromage – and then there's the Dweezil Zappa and the Family Trust’s way. The Zappa ensemble’s multi-leg tour “Zappa Plays Zappa: Tour de Frank” features nary a slice of cheese. It's far more homage. Though it might have some of the hardcore Frankophiles, well, freaking out, the band sounds positively great and offers a wild ride through the composer’s fruitful career.
It’s great to hear Frank’s songs again live; to wit, Saturday’s ZPZ:TDF performance at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights was a feast for the ears without being an assault on senses and sensibilities.
The ZPZ band debuted last year, presenting a collection of the Frank’s rock compositions. Apart from Dweezil as bandleader/guitarist, last year’s rendition of the band included guest spots by Frank alums Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute and vocals), Terry Bozzio (drums) and Steve Vai (guitars). This time around, vocalist/guitarist Ray White joined the band, performing in key portions of the show. Rounding out the band were Aaron Arntz (trumpet/keys), Pete Griffin (bass), Billy Hulting (percussion), Jamie Kime (guitar), Joe Travers (drums/vocals) and Scheila Gonzalez, who played just about everything else… including two saxophones simultaneously and the kitschy role of Waitress/Suzy Creamcheese.
As has been done through the entire tour, Frank himself performed posthumously (via coordinated audio/video) with the band. It was done tastefully, and at the most appropriate of moments – unlike the Queen/Rodgers show, which often devolved into some Hollywood/MTV carwreck-miasma. Leaving the music to speak for it self serves the ZPZ tour extremely well (what else would one expect from the name Zappa after all?) and left most in attendance hoping for another go-around, this reviewer included.
After a one-two punch of “Echidna’s Arf” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” the band went for broke, jamming out with incredible spirit and precision. Some in the audience yelled early on that it was a little too precise. “Turn off the jukebox, Dweezil!” yelled the guy down the row from me. But the heckler was quickly silenced when a Mothers of Invention medley from the Absolutely Free came up next. The run of "Son of Suzy Creamcheese," "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" and “America Drinks & Goes Home" was wicked, offering up some great solo runs by Dweezil. He’s certainly an underrated axeslinger and a powerful guitar presence and proved it all night long.
Tour guest Ray White, who was periodically in and out of Frank’s band in the 70s and 80s, was then introduced and the band riddled the audience with "City of Tiny Lites," a smashing rendition of "Pygmy Twylyte" (which recalled the version on You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2) and a punchy rendition of “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy,” which White belted out fervently. White would then yield to the video specter of Frank for “Dumb All Over,” the Zappa anthem warning against racism, religious zealots and holy wars. It's as true today as it was when it was first recorded.
Dweezil then pulled the spotlight back to the group, shuffling through the thorny "What's New in Baltimore" before the mid-set classic "Dupree's Paradise" nearly threatened to collapse the pavilion. Each ZPZ member was featured through the 20-minute-plus reading, including keyboardist Arntz on melodica and magnificent ad hoc vocals by White. Several other audience favorites followed, leading to White’s watershed recital, "The Legend of the Illinois Enema Bandit." Dweezil evoked Frank's solo from the Zappa in New York album by utilizing heavy echo and reverb to his guitar. Super tasty.
I'd like to think that Frank would have approved, at least in that instance.
With an encore that included more vintage video of Frank on “Cosmik Debris,” “Muffin Man” and the stunning “G-Spot Tornado,” the 165-minute set was over as quick as it began. "G-Spot Tornado" in particular was done in an awe-inspiring arrangement, considering that FZ realized the original composition on the synclavier. In the end, this tribute was fitting, appropriate, sonically solid, exquisitely tasty and masterfully done. I’m sure Dweezil won’t keep this gig going forever – nothing this good lasts that long – but one more crack at a show this good seemed to be the call of the night. We can hope.