Zappa plays Zappa
feat. Dweezil Zappa, Steve Vai, Ray White
@ Zepp Tokyo (22nd Jan. '08)
Sheik Yerbouti : FZ, You Is What You Were
I could preface this review with all sorts of stuff (as I usually do) to set the tone for what the show's ambience was like. I could write things about the vibe (reserved, older crowd), the crowd (reserved, older vibe), access to the venue (Odaiba, minor inconvenience), access to the show (Zepp door staff, minor inconvenience) but I'm verbose and painfully aware of how I try to convey the set and setting of events for readers who may not have had the opportunity to go.
I'll forego that and try a different opening this time. How about this: Zappa Plays Zappa on Tuesday night at Zepp Tokyo was - in a word - amazing.
It was a Tuesday night, and it was an incredible trip - and by that I don't mean the long train ride out past Odaiba to where Zepp Tokyo sits. A mix of re-worked 70's staples and heavy electro-mariachi tinged with digital kettle drums greeted the crowd as they ventured in from the cold to the mid-week event. From the moment the younger Dweezil Zappa walked on stage with his crack band (here I mean "good", not "rock cocaine smoking" owing to their proficiency and Zappa's lifelong anti-drug stance) to the final notes of the encore, the spirit of Frank Zappa and his prodigious musical legacy engulfed the auditorium.
Zappa Jr. walked on stage and immediately engaged with the crowd. His low key manner was inviting and warm, and he seemed genuinely happy receive the adulation of the crowd on his father's behalf. Opening with "Black Napkins", a song written on Zappa's tour of Japan in 1976, Dweezil and company then laid the groundwork for an almost three hour show that was both a reverent and faithful retrospective of a gifted composer, and a showcase of finely tuned musical abilities. With Zappa himself on a huge backdrop behind the band, playing live in all his celluloid glory somewhere in the past (not sure which concert, but I'm pretty sure you can get it on DVD) and perfectly synched with the live players, we were treated to his guitar work and signature solo style. As Zappa Jr. played rhythm guitar to Zappa Sr.'s inventive technique, the years seemed to melt away. Only when DZ got his chance to do a little soloing himself was the attention shifted from Frank's large presence to center stage, but even then it was hard to tear your eyes away from the screen. "Smiling down from heaven" may sound a little cliché, but at points during the evening it was hard not to think that as the larger-than-life video streamed the larger-than-life personality of the late Frank Zappa.
Through the course of the evening Dweezil Zappa humbly led the audience on a personal guided tour of his father's music, and proving himself a musician of the same elevated stature as his dad. Frank Zappa is (was) perhaps one of the most underrated musicians in popular music in general. Zappa recorded over 60 albums in his career - not to mention directing and producing feature and short films, composing soundtracks, recording albums for others, touring relentlessly, and unwaveringly taking his own government to task for trying to stifle free and independent thinking.
He crossed and blurred the boundaries of rock, jazz, performance art, soundtrack, satire and classical compositions. While the younger Zappa certainly had his hands full in recreating and replaying his father's intricate arrangements, sociopolitical satire (I never thought I would use a term like that in a pop music review, but here we are), and downright funkiness; he seemed to rise to the occasion. He may lack a little of his dad's leadership, and at times you wished a little more of Frank's voice and personality might bubble up to the surface and erupt with a laugh, but he isn't his father (as much as we may have wanted him to be at that moment), so it is a testament to his ability that these are some of the only quibbles this writer had. And let's face it - these are mere quibbles.
Ray White took on most of the singing duties and seemed right at home. Indeed he should have having been a member of the Zappa band, and hence family, for years. His voice was incredibly strong and clear, soaring over the extended solos and controlled jams. On songs like "Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy" and "Cheepnis" he made the show. The arrangements on these songs (well, all of them) are pure Zappa, but without the biting lyrics and rock operatic vocal style they would be incomplete.
Guitar impresario Steve Vai was along for the tour, and while I half expected to see a throng of poodle haired, Alcatrazz/David Lee Roth/Whitesnake lovers longing for 80's metal riffs, the fans that were there to see him were Zappa fans through and through. Vai played and toured with Zappa in the 80's as (as Zap called him) "the little Italian virtuoso". He was instrumental (no pun intended) in the recording of many of Zappa's best works (including JOE'S GARAGE and the SHUT UP AND PLAY YER GUITAR series), and they continued to work together until Zappa's death in 1993.
There was no hair guitar when Vai was on stage, just an incredible talent illuminating but not overshadowing Zappa's compositions - though there is nobody else who is really capable of playing it as Vai does. While Dweezil is no slouch when it comes to some fretwork, he certainly can't do what Steve "ten hour guitar workout" can do. Vai standouts with the group included "The Black Page" and "Filthy Habits", the former the song that he transcribed from drum music to guitar notation for Zappa in 1980 and thus garnering a place with the Zappa family and starting his acclaimed guitar career. You just don't understand how good he is until you see him effortlessly bend and pick strings in combinations that hurt your brain if you think about it too much. It was a joy to watch him play, and play in his element.
The whole bad had a chance to shine when they presented "Dupree's Paradise", and extended musical romp through prog-rock-jazz-fusion territory with Dweezil acting as conductor and big band leader. Chock full of bass, guitar, drum, xylophone, percussion, sax and keyboard solos along with improvised musical gesticulation by the younger Zappa, the song appeared barely half way through the set. It was easily one part of the evening enjoyed by all who were present, and not just for the Zappa otaku calling for "St. Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast" during lulls.
After more than two hours of playing, the encores were like one-two knockout punches. "Cosmik Debris" and "G-Spot Tornado" were at the heart of the triumphant combination, and Zappa again joined in from the large screen above the stage. Vai and White returned to the stage and it was a great end to a brilliant evening of music and tribute.
Before the show started, at the entrance, I had noticed tickets going for almost ¥10,000 for those who hadn't purchased them in advance. As someone normally (or abnormally) attuned to what audiences murmur and mumble about before, during and after shows (ticket prices being number one, and why a favorite song wasn't played by a particular artist coming an easy second), I wasn't surprised in the least when replaying the evening's tape in my head and realizing that I hadn't heard one single complaint all night.
I hope the SMASH people heard it too, because ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA is the perfect act to headline the White Stage at this year's Fuji Rock Festival - bringing the musical legacy that is Frank Zappa to a younger generation in need of brilliance and satire.
-- setlist --
1: Black Napkins(w/FZ) / 2: Magic Fingers / 3: Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy / 4: Doreen / 5: Zoot Allures / 6: Ship Ahoy / 7: Pygmy Twilight / 8: Dupree's Paradise / 9: Uncle Remus / 10: Willie The Pimp / 11: The Black Page #2 / 12: Andy / 13: Filthy Habits / 14: I'm The Slime / 15: Montana(w/FZ) / 16: Echidna's Arf / 17: City Of Tiny Lights / 18: Florentine Pogen
-- encore --
19: Cheepnis / 20: Cosmik Debris(w/FZ) / 21: G-Spot Tornado / 22: Muffin Man(w/FZ)
report by jeff and photos by ikesan
The featured photos are from the show on the 21st @ Zepp Osaka.