Tag Archives: chester thompson

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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Genesis: Seconds Out, First In

Genesis_SOutGenesis released the double live album Seconds Out, their last consecutive album to feature guitarist Steve Hackett, in 1977. Steve left the band near the end of mixing sessions for this album, and ended what for many is the most important period of their history. Amazingly, in those two short years, with Phil Collins doing dual duty on both drums and vocals and Steve bringing in his best work to date, Genesis recorded some of the greatest progressive / classical rock albums of the 1970’s – namely Trick of the Tail and the pastoral, gorgeous masterpiece Wind & Wuthering. These studio albums and the tours to promote them, in 1976 and 1977, along with the live recordings on Seconds Out stand today as some of the band’s finest hours. The Wind & Wuthering tour was also my first opportunity to see Genesis perform live.

 

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genesis_philvocal_bradowenOn that night, nearly 40 years ago, on March 24, 1977, we drove to the Los Angeles Forum to bear witness to these artists. By then I’d seen about a dozen concerts, starting with Cat Stevens, and continuing with Jethro Tull, Yes, Queen and other luminaries of Genesis, but this was the one I’d really been waiting for. I can still recall an overwhelming elation as the lights dimmed and Chester counted the band into the opening number, “Squonk” during which Phil warmed his still childlike voice for a long night. I recall the impressive tambourine dance he performed on I Know What I Like”, the dual drum solo on “Cinema Show”, and the moment he got behind his kit during the complex sweeping midsection of “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” proving to all who listened what a powerful yet nuanced performer he was.

genesis_steve_bradowenNo longer sitting for the shows, Steve stood and commanded attention, stomping and swaying to accentuate his parts, including the haunting majestic solo on “Firth of Fifth,” his opening lead heralding the “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” and the aggressive jam on the brilliant “Unquiet Slumbers” instrumental. While Steve rightly complained of having his compositions squeezed off of these releases, his playing on every track that did make the records is off the charts, his ability to make the guitar drive melody unparalleled. Forget even calling out the technical and artistic brilliance of Tony Banks on keys and Michael Rutherford on guitar and bass – these were a given and their talents were on full display. At the time, these four players, along with Chester Thompson on drums were my number one musical heroes and they delivered the goods. It’s all on the record.

Genesis_TrickGenesis_WindGenesis_SpotAs a document of their ability to deliver impressive performances without Gabriel, the Seconds Out album is as timely and effective live chronicle as any in the progressive rock genre. Mostly complete renditions of their songs, from Foxtrot (1972) through to Wind & The Wuthering (1976), made up the set list culled from the the 1977 tour, with Cinema Show featuring Bill Bruford on drums, from the 1976 tour. Small snippets of one song each from their earliest albums Trespass and Nursery Crime were also mixed within the set. This approach was new to their shows then, and it worked, although longer medleys would become deeply annoying in their later more commercial years as a way to grant only passing reference to their early recordings. Also a few gems from the tours were left out, including a lot of Wind & Wuthering and it’s companion EP Spot the Pigeon, but given the length of their shows these would have yielded a four-album set! All of the recordings from these two tours are sonically amazing, though some may complain about the mix, which subverts a bit of Steve’s work, and leaves the lowest bass notes from Michael Rutherford inaudible. Vocals, drums and keys up front, as was so often the case. Still it yields an enjoyable set and an important offering.

genesis_tony_bradowengenesis_mike_bradowenVisually, the Wind & Wuthering tour itself was simple. While films and projections had been abandoned after the Trick of the Tail show, the subsequent outing honed their live skills, with the focus being on musicianship, and the lights that made it all visible. One of the simple most effective accents was the use of rows of vertical white spotlights with billowing smoke traveling through them, shown on the cover of Seconds Out. And, for the finale of “Super’s Ready” Phil’s ascent to a riser dressed in white to deliver the “Apocalypse in 9/8” segment was unforgettable. There is a decent film covering about half the Trick of the Tail tour, included in the latest re-master of that album, which actually hit theaters at the time. Though short, it is a great document, even if cut in parts with annoying silent films that interrupt the performance footage. It’s also on YouTube here Genesis – In Concert 1976.  For the 1977 Wind & Wuthering tour there is scant film, all of poor quality. Instead, there are some very nice complete audio recordings from this year that augment Seconds Out, which will lend a bit of insight as to this, arguably the better of the two outings.

genesis_phil_bradowenTogether, the albums of this period, Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering, Seconds Out and the Spot the Pigeon EP deserve more respect and attention from critics and those chronicling the history of Genesis than they receive. Much of the press surrounding this band has been grossly unfair, with this period basically ignored given the performance art that preceded it, and commercial appeal that followed it. This was again the case with the recent documentary “Genesis: Together and Apart/Sum of the Parts.” Instead, one could easily argue that the band produced their crowning achievements during this time. This was music and art blended seamlessly together – there is a kind of magic woven through the tracks that fuels the imagination. I know what I like, and I was there, so here’s a recommendation: skip the Genesis R-Kive set and the documentary, and pick up these four albums – along with Steve Hackett’s first solo album Voyage of the Acolyte (1975) – now that’s the best way to establish an archive for these master craftsmen.

(photos by Brad Owen at The Atomic Co)