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Dweezil Zappa - Zappa Plays Zappa Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 January 2008
ImageNo matter how masterfully I write about Zappa Plays Zappa (the stunning two-DVD set available through, this review will turn out to be the ugly biscuit on the tray.

You know what the ugly biscuit is ... 11 of them are perfectly round buns of buttery joy but old number 12 has a little nipple stretching off the end. Or it’s oblong, lopsided and nether-worldly. And it’s burnt. It’s ugly.

Why? Because it’s a daunting task to write about music so maddening, exquisite, complex, perplexing, vexing, ludicrous, ridiculous, expansive and filled with, as Thelonious Monk would put it, “Ugly Beauty.” I’m willing to give it a go because it’s absolutely nowhere near as difficult as learning to play it, something I actually attempted. When my “Inca Roads” crashed and laid scattered around me like the Hindenburg I sat my guitar on its stand and left it there for weeks. I didn’t even have the patience to learn a single (though difficult) Zappa composition. Dweezil Zappa took two years off to practice, study and learn to play his father’s music the right way. He does that in spades on Zappa Plays Zappa.

He has done his family, and Frank, proud. No, more than that, he has honored them in the most profound way imaginable. He has taken this music, that of one of the most important composers of the 20th Century, and brought it back from near death. I know the music itself will never die because it lives and breathes as long as anyone’s listening. But aye, there’s the rub and the reason for Dweezil taking on this Herculean task. Frank’s “dots on paper” need exposure. They need discovery. New listeners. And ZPZ is accomplishing it.
ZPZ is filled with close to four hours of pieces played so perfectly, and in such an it’s-impossible-for-humans-to-have-these-insane-musical-abilities way, that it is completely overwhelming. Not almost overwhelming, completely overwhelming. With a big old period on the end. Consisting of two shows (Seattle and Portland) intercut, ZPZ opens with “Andy,” a quirky and complicated tune from the early ‘70s Roxy-era band, and moves quickly through three decades of FZ’s genius.

I’ve seen bands filled with Zappa alumni play this song (and others on ZPZ) and was happy, and joyously satisfied, to hear it live. But after experiencing the ZPZ versions I realize that all of the others were mere well-meaning tributes. For Zappa fans this is the real deal, and although the overall show doesn’t feel as loose as Frank’s did (loose in the sense that something musically profound or incredibly stupid could happen at any moment for any reason), they do have the same aura of masterful perfection that Frank’s shows had … something the “tribute bands” can’t provide.

As my fellow Zappa-phile Evan and I watched one the best versions of “Pound for a Brown” ever (and when you see it you’ll agree), he looked over at me and said, “Where do these people come from? Are they just sitting at home waiting for someone to ask them to play Zappa music?” Now, with the word “people” he’s referring to musicians so we’ve got to keep it in the very loosest sense of the word, but I understand what he means. Zappa fans will recognize Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock from their stints in various Zappa bands, and they make stunning contributions to ZPZ (Vai on “Montana” yikes!), but really, where did Scheila Gonzalez come from? How can you be that musically talented? Keys. Sax. Flute. Percussion. Vox. Keys and sax at the same time. I kept waiting for a song where she would tap dance over and adjust a light or something. And Billy Hulting? How do you become a percussionist who can actually play the main motif from “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast”? How do you play “SAPB” and make it look fun? Why would you put yourself through that?

This is some kind of ugly review and I bet you’ve noticed I haven’t hit the music hard enough. I’ve got to tell you that it’s through no lack of effort on my part. There’s just so much here to write about it’s all building up inside me like oil in a teenage pore and I can’t keep the thoughts pure or clean. Pimples. Writing a big time review and I’m suffering from musical pimples.

So here’s the music, cutting right through everything like a jagged appendectomy scar. Evan points out that the guitar solo Dweezil plays on “Andy” is a note for note copy of the Anyway the Wind Blows version. “Black Napkins” is mind bogging in its ability to sonically duplicate the Zoot Allures original and I mean to every detail. It’s not often that you can get an audience to sing along to a line like “Your old lady has just gone down” from Cosmic Debris. Terry Bozzio’s teenage angst section of the show is both wonderful and somewhat sad, especially “Punky’s Whips.” At first I thought it was because the lyrics seemed a little dated, but upon a second viewing I realized it was sad because the thing Frank wrote about, how the music industry panders to image and commercial appeal, applies today more than when he wrote it. Ninety per cent of the acts you can hear on the radio are Punky Meadows, but without the guitar playing talent (he’s more fluid than Jeff Beck, you know). The music of “Punky’s Whips” is still as exciting and wonderful as it was 30 years ago, but the music industry has gone further down the dumper.

The soloing by the instrumentalists throughout both discs is way over expert level (although you can’t really expect any keyboard player to be George Duke), and although I’m not a big fan of the drum solo, both Bozzio’s and Joe “The Vaultmeister” Travers’ turns are impressive. And with this being the ugly biscuit review and since it still seems a little undercooked, I feel that I must write out the names the other three players and relieve a doughy sense of guilt. Jamie W. Kime on guitar, Pete Griffin on bass and Aaron Arntz on keyboards. Do not take lightly these names that appear merely once in this review. They are quite incredible over the course of these shows.

“So,” you ask, “where’re the ugly biscuits on ZPZ?” The “Black Page #2”? Well, only in that there’s no dance contest accompanying it like on Baby Snakes. Steve Vai’s mind-destroying guitar wrenching? Maybe. Sometimes it seems as if he’s not actually playing the guitar so much as attempting to tear it apart and reconstruct it before our very eyes. How about that the band duplicates the studio version of “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” versus the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore version? Naw. Since the only real difference between the two is the word “cock” it doesn’t really bother me that much (although it means a few lines don’t rhyme).

I can add this though: the song “The Torture Never Stops” always made me somewhat queasy in the past but now I’m good with it. I don’t know why it bothered me, maybe it seemed a little too cruel. But with vocals mixed out front on ZPZ , the lyrics combined with news reports of “water boarding” gives me a greater appreciation of the lines, “But a dungeon like a sin/requires naught but lockin' in/of everything that's ever been/Look at her, look at him/that's what's the deal we're dealing in.” Thirty years ahead of its sad time.

So now my review is done and, just as I suspected, it’s a very ugly carbonized biscuit. There’s a piece that sticks out like a nipple in the fourth paragraph, it’s nowhere near round and it’s far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean what I’m writing about isn’t, because for Zappa fans, lovers of adventurous intelligent music, and people who are sick of what’s they’re being forcefed by the record business, Zappa Plays Zappa is cooked to perfection.

Eat it and enjoy.

Zappa Plays Zappa comes in the magic of PCM stereo and 5.1 Dolby surround sound. As you can imagine, everything about the playing and mixing is, in itself, pretty damn terrific. As a matter of fact I’m really happy the Zappa family put this little beauty out because it allows me to hear much of what I missed when I saw the tour at the House of Blues last year. I missed parts of the show because my leg was in a cast and it took me a half hour to get to the bathroom and back, and also because I had large wads of paper towel crammed into my ears because it was so loud as to make me cry blood. So thank you, ZFT.

For those of you who are numbers conscious, you may notice that my sound rating is “only” a nine. With something of this high quality it was hard to give it anything other than a 10, but in the end I had to due to the number of drop outs in the rear speakers. I couldn’t tell if they were part of the manufacturing process or mixing, but I did notice that they seemed to happen only during Dweezil’s solos. I am really looking forward to a four-CD ZPZ set so that I may annoy my neighbors!

Extra Features
ZPZ comes with a special features section which contains a very interesting interview with DZ and a performance of the song “Cheepnis,” which will please my friend Ozzie to no end since we’ve listened to that song together about 10,000 times. It’s a great version, no question about it, but it leads me to ask the Zappa Family Trust, “Where in the hell is the Roxy & Elsewhere live DVD? I’m beginning to think it’s never coming out, and I need it, I tell you, I’m hungry for it!” Open the UMRK and get that biscuit to burnin’!

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