Zappa at the Roxy and Warfield

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Frank Zappa


In 1980, when I was in college in San Luis Obispo, a then sleepy town half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, our exposure to the early advance of punk and “new wave” music from Britain was delayed. In the mean time, one of my best friends from High School moved up and we roomed together during that transitional year. We were both very into 1970’s progressive rock, but Ron was more attuned to jazz-fusion, modern classical music, and sometimes genre-bending experimental work. So we schooled each other in our tastes, which meant that while I pitched him Camel and Gentle Giant, he shared with me artists like Jan Hammer, National Health, and most importantly Frank Zappa, all of which required peer pressure and repeated listening to appreciate! I eventually screwed up that friendship, but ended up with a life long gift from Ron’s patient tutelage.

Zappa was the taste that took the longest time to develop. His compositions were often bizarre, shot through with absurdist humor and outrageous musical interludes that crossed multiple genres including rock, jazz, classical, progressive and the avant-garde, sometimes within one song! For some reason, probably due to my young age, I first understood the allure of Zappa via Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) and the opening track “Penguin in Bondage:”

She’s just like a penguin in bondage, boy….
Way over on the wet side of the bed!

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Chester Thompson

Somehow this made my late-teen funny bone rattle every time I heard it. Being a fan of low-budget horror films at the time, the song “Cheepnis,” a kind of tribute to those films, also became a favorite, along with “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” which featured dual drum solos from Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphery. I had already seen Chester play alongside Phil Collins when Genesis came to Los Angeles in 1977 and after, so that was a known entity. Also, I knew Ruth Underwood for her work with drummer Burleigh Drummond on the urban-jungle themed “The Brunt” from Ambrosia’s wonderful album Somewhere I Never Travelled. References intact, my journey began.

As it turned out, Roxy & Elsewhere, and the masterpiece the followed, One Size Fits All (1975), brought together what remains for this patron one of the strongest Zappa lineups in history, the final version of his “Mothers of Invention,” featuring:

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Ruth Underwood

Napoleon Murphy Brock – flute, tenor sax, vocals
George Duke – keyboards, vocals
Ruth Underwood – marimba, vibraphone, percussion
Chester Thompson – drums, sound effects
Tom Fowler – bass guitar
and guests

Zappa_OneSizeCover_72dpiOne Size Fits All kicks off with the impossibly complex masterpiece “Inca Roads” for which a groundbreaking Claymation video was created. George Duke’s silky-smooth vocals are paired with his similarly stunning synth leads. Ruth Underwood absolutely owns the vibraphone, playing at a pace that defies the imagination (“that’s Ruth!”) Chester Thompson pins the whole thing down with an impressive display of fills and fusion riffs (“Chester’s Thang!”) It’s a fantastic way to lead off an album that never lags as it goes on to explore many diverse styles and moods. The upbeat “Can’t Afford No Shoes” grounds the record with some pure rock, “Sofa No. 1” brings some after-hours Manhattan soul, “Po-Jama People” sports some of Frank’s most entertaining lyrics, along with a lengthy, labyrinth guitar solo. And that’s just side one! Of note, three tracks on the flip side, “Florentine Pogen,” “San Ber-dino” and “Andy” demonstrate the best side of Zappa and his band’s many talents, veering as they do into the most difficult yet tight jazz-fusion excursions on record.

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To my great surprise, more than 40 years after it’s release, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil, who continues to perform his father’s music under the touring name Zappa Plays Zappa, came to the Warfield in San Francisco, December 5th to perform One Size Fits All in its entirety, along with many other classics. The show was truly spectacular, as Dweezil and band have mastered the art of recreating Frank’s music, while breathing new life into the compositions. Everyone on stage put in amazing performances, and the very complex pieces received their due diligence from:

Dweezil Zappa: Guitar
Scheila Gonzalez: Saxophone, Flute, Keyboards & Vocals
Ben Thomas: Vocals
Chris Norton: Keyboards
Kurt Morgan: Bass
Ryan Brown: Drums

Ben took on the monumental task of covering vocals as diverse as Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, and most notably Frank himself, proving his ability to pitch even the most satirical and wry bits without sounding like a mimic. Chris, Scheila, Kurt and occasionally Dweezil ably assist him and when they all sang together it was harmonic perfection. It was pure heaven to witness these amazing songs played live by this group of talented musicians and the man who keeps it “all in the family.” My only nit about the whole evening was the lack of a vibes player to take Ruth’s parts, which were instead simulated on synthesizer. Scheila captured the sound, but for those rapid-fire leads there’s no substitute for real vibes.

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But as it turns out, a film of Frank Zappa and the final Mothers performances at the Roxy Theater way back in 1973, including an early version of “Inca Roads” with Ruth in all her mallet-driven glory is now available on Blue-Ray disc! Some of the Zappa_RoxyMovie_Cover_72dpiperformances from those three nights were used on the audio only release Roxy & Elsewhere, but many remained on bootlegs or in the vaults, and the films have been completely unavailable, in no small part due to technical difficulties which rendered the audio elements nearly impossible to sync with the film footage. After extensive rework and painstaking editing, the films are finally available. The camerawork is excellent, as there are four cameras on stage and positioned at the back of the small club for the wide shots. The lens swoops in and out of the action, capturing crystal clear close-up images of each musician hitting their most challenging notes, while delivering the vocals, humor and stagecraft. At the end of the raucous evening, the stage is packed with guests, including a stripper who attempts to distract the dedicated players! Any fan of Zappa’s music during this period must have this video release – it’s an important document of the man, his band, and their most amazing musical performances.

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