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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013

Like Father, Like Son: Zappa Plays ‘Roxy & Elsewhere’

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Dweezil Zappa and his siblings Moon, Ahmet and Diva grew up under the roof of their father, the famous, eccentric and genius musician Frank Zappa. Along with their mother Gail, the Zappa clan was sometimes labeled as “weird,” but as Dweezil tells it, growing up Zappa was actually pretty normal.

“A lot of people think it must have been wild and crazy, with all sorts of weirdos in and out but, unfortunately for storytelling purposes, it wasn’t like that—Frank was working all the time,” Zappa says. “None of us in the family ever got involved in drugs or alcohol or any of that.”

Frank was productive and prolific, recording about 60 albums over a 30-year period with his band, The Mothers of Invention, and as a solo artist.

“My dad was also pretty anti-social. When he was doing a recording, he’d have musicians come over but they’d do their work and take off. He was very serious about his work, but he had a great sense of humor, too,” Zappa explains. “The stuff we would do when he wasn’t working is play games, like make up words that should be in the dictionary but aren’t. For example, I was trying to come up with a word that would describe an individual that always wears rock ’n’ roll T-shirts. I asked my dad and in about two seconds he came up with the word ‘insignaramus.’”

Frank Zappa passed away in 1993.

Dweezil has played music consistently over the years and occasionally has appeared on the silver screen and on television. He’s a former MTV VJ and even had a cooking show (“Dweezil & Lisa”) with former girlfriend Lisa Loeb. But his biggest acclaim has come from his Zappa Plays Zappa show, which he started in 2006. Recruiting a mix of his father’s former collaborators and a newer generation of musicians, Dweezil’s group has celebrated Frank’s music in tours around the world. They won a Grammy Award in 2009.

For Zappa Plays Zappa’s current tour, Dweezil decided to perform Frank’s 1973 live album Roxy & Elsewhere in its entirety to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary.

“If someone coming to the show hasn’t heard any of my father’s music, it’s a great introduction to it,” Zappa says. “It has a diversity of styles, and the styles that are predominant on it are things that are fun and groovy—funk, rock, jazz—that’s the core of the record. There’s a lot of great guitar playing and compositions that have unique structures to them, songs like ‘Echidna’s Arf (Of You)’ and ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ Those are songs from his career that have stood out to people as what makes him different as a composer.”

Zappa says one of the biggest challenges for this set was learning the 16-minute-plus “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church).”

“That’s the hardest song I’ve had to learn since I’ve started this in 2006, but it’s become a lot of fun to play now that we’ve actually learned it. Songs like that—there’s a procrastination to learn it because you know you’re really going to have to push your ability to the limit. I’d say it’s the equivalent of trying to memorize the phone book out of sequence,” Zappa laughs. “The melody is complex and it wasn’t meant to be played on guitar, so it was a challenge. It’s a beast.”

One thing that’s made Zappa happy about his show is that he’s seen Zappa Plays Zappa’s audience diversify over the years.

“We like seeing this music come to a new generation,” he says. “It used to be all old guys over 60, but we started seeing younger kids and women show up in the audience. I remember at our Summerfest show there were a bunch of younger tattooed girls in the front row. We were kind of scratching our heads going—‘Where are all these tattooed girls coming from?’”

The “tattooed girls” were a welcome new audience.

“The thing we try to do is give everyone a chance to discover the music and let the music speak for itself,” Zappa notes, adding, “There really isn’t any other music that’s like it.”

Zappa Plays Zappa perform on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Pabst Theater. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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