Zappa Plays Zappa

Berklee Performance Center / Boston, MA

I was laughing well before Dweezil Zappa plugged in his walnut Gibson SG. Between the unfettered commercialism taking place behind a souvenir stand (75 bucks for an Apostrophe () hoodie!) and the sea of Hot Rats, Chungas Revenge, and Roxy & Elsewhere t-shirts filling the Berklee Performance Center, I knew I was sitting in a 21st century embodiment of New York’s Garrick Theatre where Frank Zappa and his outrageous Mothers of Invention enthralled streams of misfits, outcasts and sycophants back in ‘68.

Some in attendance looked like they just rolled out of bed; others looked like they didn’t even own a bed. But I, like everyone else inside the venue, had come to see Frank’s spirit flowing through the frenetic fingers of his virtuosic son. Over the course of two and a half hours, sans intermission, on the evening of April 12th, the word disappointment never once crossed our minds.

The song requests flew out of fans’ mouths before Dweezil strummed a chord: “Willie The Pimp,” “The Black Page,” “Whipping Post.” Yet Dweezil and his sensational five piece band of talented and musical jesters had the unmitigated audacity to kick things off by playing Frank’s seminal 1975 album One Size Fits All in its entirety to celebrate its 40th anniversary. This is an important record in Frank’s discography because it was released after his mighty gold-sellers Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe () yet was the last to retain his most famous Mothers lineup. It’s also the album where Frank’s music gets more serious, but his lyrical frivolity is as strong as ever. Dweezil acknowledged the album sounded like music from the “fuckin’ future” and he was right. In watching the group tear into “Inca Roads,” “Po-Jama People” and “Andy,” I wished for Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ruth Underwood to come out from the wings because that’s how good Dweezil and crew were. Alas.

The big difference between Dweezil and Frank on stage is the former is never afraid to smile at the multi-layered sounds flowing out from his axe, even as his New Balance-clad feet worked furiously on at least ten guitar pedals to recreate the right atmosphere and soundscape for each track. As technically proficient as they were, Dweezil’s bandmates, Scheila Gonzalez (vocals, keyboards, flute, saxophone), Chris Norton (vocals, keyboards), Ben Thomas (trumpet, trombone, guitar, vocals), Kurt Morgan (vocals, bass, keyboards) and Ryan Brown (percussion), never once lost their humor or energy even as Frank’s complex compositions constantly transcended octaves and tempos.

After a standing ovation and a quick change of Dweezil’s in-ears, Act two of the show featured a succulent and varied buffet of tracks spanning more than 15 classic years of Frank. There were three gems from Absolutely Free (“Status Back Baby,” “Big Leg Emma” and “Son of Suzy Creamcheese.”); as well as “The Grand Wazoo” in all its big band splendor; plus catchy renditions of “Who Needs The Peace Corps?,” “Society Pages” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.”

Fully immersed in his instrument, Dweezil knew that when the groove was right, a simple smile and look back over his shoulder signified Frank was listening and relaying his approval from above. The band ended the show with a three punch knockout of “Cosmik Debris,” “Dancin’ Fool (replete with off-step audience members fighting for Dweezil’s attention) and the cowpoke ditty “Montana,” underscored with sweet “I’m the Slime” guitar riffs.

Earlier in the show, Dweezil acknowledged how, to this day, Frank is lumped into two wrongly suited categories: those of novelty artist and “the guy with kids with weird names.” “If that’s all you know about my Dad, that’s too fucking bad for you,” Dweezil said to rapturous applause. How true. Because Frank Zappa, 22 years after his untimely death, remains an originator, creator, visionary and iconoclast. All this concert did was play the point home with gusto.

– Ira Kantor

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