Ever since seeing a televised performance a couple of years ago of Dweezil Zappa playing his father Frank’s music, I have been relishing the chance to see this spectacle in person. Last night at the Egg in Albany, I got that chance, and disappointment was the farthest thing from my mind.
Dweezil and his incredible ensemble of musicians blew the doors off the theater with the opening number “Gumbo Variations,” a 15-minute instrumental piece from the album “Hot Rats.” They could have stopped playing after this song and I would have felt I got my money’s worth. It was so tight, so spot on that it may as well have been Frank and his old cohorts up on stage. The band then played the entire “Apostrophe” album to perfection, a quite bluesy record with the highlights being the title track, “Uncle Remus,” and “Stink Foot.” Vocalist Ben Thomas sounded almost identical to Frank Zappa, and Dweezil’s ability to play the complex and amazing guitar licks composed by his father is second to none. During “Cosmik Debris,” the guitar and vocals were turned over to Frank himself, via a video clip of Frank performing. His vocals and guitar were supported live by the rest of Dweezil’s band, allowing for a unique experience. This merging of past and present continued later in the show during portions of “Inca Roads” and “Muffin Man.”
For Dweezil to have learned all of his father’s music is impressive enough, considering the elder Zappa recorded over 80 albums in his career. But to take his father’s music on tour, to attempt to recreate his diverse style, sense of humor and intricate compositions really takes courage. But Dweezil obviously knows what he’s doing, and he surrounded himself with truly gifted musicians. Scheila Gonzales is an amazing saxophone player, as well as providing marvelous backing vocals throughout the show, and took the lead on the goofy 80’s Zappa hit “Valley Girl” (with a slightly modern treatment as she made references to Twitter and Facebook). Not only can Ben Thomas sing like Frank, but he also played trumpet and various hand-held percussion instruments. Bassist Pete Griffin’s fingers were flying during the intense and amazing “RDNZL,” which also featured great work by percussionist Billy Hulting. Chris Norton shined on “City of Tiny Lights” with his keyboards and vocals, and guitarist Jamie Kime ripped through tunes like “Dinah Moe Hum” and played the part of The Devil during the low-brow humor of “Chrissy Puked Twice (Titties and Beer).” Joe Travers rounded out the group, pounding the drums competently, although his brief but unnecessary drum solo halfway through the show was not a highlight.
Speaking of highlights, some were “RDNZL,” “Inca Roads,” and the unexpected audience-participation of “Keep it Greasy.” Before that number, Dweezil invited all female audience members to join the band on stage to dance – about 20 or so ladies of all shapes and sizes did so, shaking their groove things during the sexual overtones of the song. It was quite amusing.
If I had to find something negative about the show, it would be Dweezil’s stage presence, or lack thereof. When he wasn’t blazing through a guitar section, he stood motionless, with a facial expression as though he were watching paint dry. He had as much stage presence as a piece of wood. But luckily his astounding ability to play Frank’s music note for note more than made up for it.
The band received standing ovations after about half of the songs throughout the show, and the crowd stood and cheered during the break before the encore. The encore featured the short but awesome “Baby Snakes,” the aforementioned “Chrissy Pukes Twice” and closed with “Muffin Man.”
Many of the fans were old enough to have seen Frank back in the day, and were joyous to see the songs performed so well again. Others, like me, were big Frank fans who never got the chance to see the master perform, but I wouldn’t say that seeing Zappa Plays Zappa was “settling.” Frank would no doubt be beyond proud and impressed with what Dweezil has been doing, and would be thrilled that so many people still love his music so much. Even the biggest Frank Zappa purist could not deny the talent and precision of Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa. If you can catch this show, you will not be disappointed.
This Zappa Plays Zappa concert gets 4.5 out of 5 stars!