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Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

Zappa Plays Zappa @ The Pabst Theater

Sept. 8, 2013

zappa plays zappa
Photo credit: Benjamin Wick
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“Thanks, I’m just a few years older than this album,” Dweezil Zappa replied onstage when a fan wished him a belated happy birthday Sunday night. His group, Zappa Plays Zappa, then played his father Frank Zappa’s album Roxy & Elsewhere in its entirety. Dweezil noted the album is 40 years old, “but to me, it still sounds like it’s from the future.”

Soon into the first track, “Penguin in Bondage” they proved that they were not only capable of covering the elder Zappa’s work but also showed off their own music skills as well. Zappa’s guitar playing was impressive and he was greatly assisted by Scheila Gonzalez, who often stole the show with her vocals, saxophone solos, duck calling whistle and various other instruments. Ben Thomas also played various horns and did vocals, doing an uncanny impersonation of Frank and other Mothers of Invention member’s voices.

By track six of the album, “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” the band was getting standing ovations from the audience for the musically complex work.

Part of the challenge of reproducing Roxy was that it wasn’t simply covering the material—the album is a live record that features some live onstage antics. Zappa’s group mirrored this, but made it their own. Part of this included Gonzalez enticing Thomas with a giant joint consisting of “a shredded gym sock wrapped in high school diploma” during “Dummy Up.” In the original version of “Cheepnis,” an ode to cheesy monster movies, Frank talks about his love of low budget horror. Here Dweezil creates his own banter, reminiscing about watching one of his dad’s favorites, The Braniac, shown via projector in the family’s basement.

“Is everyone onstage ready for this one?” Zappa asked his bandmates and they launched into the last track of Roxy, “Be Bop Tango (In the Old Jazzmen’s Church.”) Dweezil has described how this song is typical of his father’s genius—it is an intensely intricate piece with a complicated intro, but breaks in the middle for some comic relief, improv and audience participation. First Dweezil conducted the audience, raising and lowering their voices in a crescendo through hand direction, then he invited two people (a third gatecrasher was politely dismissed) onstage to dance to fragmented riffs of the be bop.

After an intermission, the band was back to play about another hour of selected songs from Frank’s catalog, a wide range of material from the obscure (“The Evil Prince”) to fan favorite “Montana,” which is about a rancher with big dreams of getting rich growing a crop of dental floss.

“The Black Page” part 1 and 2 was written as a drum challenge and evolved into a song and the band displayed the song progression by having new drummer Ryan Brown show off his talent by playing the first part solo.

Another fond memory from Dweezil was Frank’s song “I Come From Nowhere.” He recalled his father playing the track for him and others after he had recorded it and rolling on the floor laughing at their confused look at his bizarre vocalization, recreated for the show by Gonzalez.

At the end of the set, the band surprised the audience with a non-Frank cover of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” For the last song, the audience was on their feet and flooding toward the front of the stage for a cover of one of Frank’s favorite show closers, “Muffin Man.”
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