Zappa Plays Zappa – Frank Zappa 70th Birthday Celebration, The Roundhouse,London
A sparkling display of the family jewels
Wednesday 10 November 2010
First of all I have a confession to make – I never did get the opportunity to see Frank Zappa play live before his untimely death in 1993. It remains one of my great gig regrets. So a chance to witness his son Dweezil and band perform a selection of Zappa's finest works in the intimate surrounds of the Roundhouse was a no-brainer.
From the hushed tones of Dweezil's introduction, it's clear that this isn't your average gig. His father was more composer than straight musician and tonight's show is at times more classical performance than classic rock gig.
Instrumental opener "The Gumbo Variations" transports us straight into Zappa world as Dweezil's guitar and Scheila Gonzalez's steamy sax set the tone for the evening. The eight musicians are as tight as a band can be, the line-up a fitting ensemble to reproduce the best of Zappa's oeuvre. Close your eyes for a second and you could be at a gig at the height of Frank's fame in the Seventies. The crowd lap it up, roaring approval at Zappa junior's cultured solos.
Next it's straight into Apostrophe, a perennial favourite of the Zappa cognoscenti since its 1974 release. And tonight we are to witness the whole album in its running order. Young singer Ben Thomas is warmly welcomed on stage – it's a tough call for him, as essentially he has to recreate Zappa's vocals as well as the myriad other voices that pepper his work. The vocals are slightly down in the mix, but Thomas seems to have nailed it pretty well.
However, there's much more to tonight's show than just an accurate recital of the great man's work. When "Cosmik Debris" starts up, the screen above the band switches to a video of Frank in concert – so while Dweezil plays, his father sings. It's effortlessly segued together, a triumph of technology that could so easily have been an epic failure. But the sound levels match, the performances match and it doesn't feel mawkish, even when Zappa starts smoking a cigarette nodding in "approval" as he looks down on his son playing the guitar. It's rapturously received.
The band cruise through the rest of the album, including a standout "Uncle Remus", and the crowd go wild at the final bars of "Stinkfoot".
Next up is the sublime "Inca Roads". Zappa again appears on the screen playing an exquisite, weaving solo as only he can, while Dweezil leans on an amp gazing up at his father. It's a touching moment that neatly sums up the evening. We are all here to celebrate Zappa's life and work – and while some obsessives might dismiss Dweezil's guitar playing or claim that you're better off watching a DVD of the man himself, they are clearly missing the point.
More treats are to follow as ex-Zappa bassist Scott Thunes bounds on stage to link up with his old sparring partner via the wonders of technology for a cracking version of "Dumb All Over" – and Jeff Simmons sings lead on "Wino Man".
A final treat is when Zappa's daughter, Moon Unit, with her own daughter, Mathilda, make a surprise entrance to repetitive beats for a rousing version of "Valley Girl". It's the Eighties hit that first got me into Zappa. Happy birthday Frank – you may be gone, but your music lives on.
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