Since Frank Zappa’s death in 1993, a cottage industry devoted to keeping his music alive has emerged. In true departed-master form, his eldest son Dweezil has spent the last four years leading that charge with the tribute act Zappa Plays Zappa. On Saturday they landed in Chicago.
The challenge Dweezil is undertaking is enormous. Frank Zappa’s epic 62-album catalogue puts him alongside Bach and Vivaldi for enormity, scope, and quality of repertoire. It’s for that reason that a sense of irony shared a ghostly center stage with Frank Zappa on Saturday. By committing to carry his father’s torch, Dweezil Zappa has essentially chosen the path opposite Frank. He’s treading water. He’s playing on nostalgia with no hint forward. Dweezil is not Frank Zappa, he’s a Wes Anderson character. ‘Eccentrically-named son tours an exacting homage to even more eccentric dead father.’ Set to classic rock, no less. Bill Murray’s probably gotten the pitch already.
ZPZ suggests that Frank Zappa did indeed write enough music to sustain two men their entire performing lives. Whether an audience will stick around to care is another question. Turnout at this show was tragic. I have never seen more genius onstage at the Congress, and I have never seen it so empty. The upshot was that the crowd, still ample enough to breathe life into the Rock, was concentrated with Zappaheads who gleefully anticipated all the musical left turns they were delivered, on perfect cue, from the talented cast. Dweezil’s ten-person band honors the family tradition of blasting the most complex music ever to sneak into rock’s mainstream with an army of preternaturally talented musicians.
From the outset, it was clear that Dweezil was just as reverent as anyone in the crowd. His announcement kicking off the show, “Here we go with something off of Hot Rats!” was pregnant with the implication that though Hot Rats is not and never will be his, he was about to enjoy it as much as we were. He spent much of the show standing in the spot where Frank should have been—front and center—without taking charge. See, Dweezil is something of a guitar god at this point. I was as excited to see him play as I was to hear the songs, but we didn’t get enough of him.
Confining himself, however, was Dweezil’s intention. He has stated that he doesn’t want to change anything about the songs, that they must be staged as faithfully as a Beethoven symphony would be. Dweezil’s contention is that Frank’s compositions were so deliberate that bringing them to life in anything but their original conceptions dishonors them. ZPZ has performed this daunting task better than even Frank’s bands did. That commitment to fidelity was undercut by part of the song selection, though, which seemed to favor Frank’s comedic side over his orchestral. “Valley Girl,” “Titties and Beer,” and “Dinah-Moe-Hum” took the places of songs more deserving of precise fossilization, like “Peaches en Regalia”.
Zappa’s cornerstone works, however, were executed beautifully. Though lacking his father’s patented staccato sparkles up and down the neck, Dweezil’s sweep-heavy guitar playing was more technically proficient. It was a pleasure to hear him stretch out on songs like “Apostrophe” and “RDNZL.” He actually ceded what command of the stage he had to projected videos of Frank singing and soloing on “Cosmik Debris,” “Inca Roads,” and “Muffin Man.” It was an interesting choice to bring him ‘onstage.’ It was a full admission that we were expected to want Frank, and that this ersatz live version was the best we could get. I just wish Dweezil knew that I sort of wanted to see him, too. The videos of Frank are on YouTube; meanwhile, the live guitarist we came to see abdicated three of the most emotional solo vehicles of the evening to his dead father. During “Muffin Man,” the videoghosted Frank Zappa bent down on his stage and threw a toilet paper roll back into his rowdy 1977 audience before embarking on a solo of sprawling energy that, admittedly, proved the highlight of the show. Just then, security guards at the Congress threw real toilet paper rolls into the audience, who dutifully bandied them around during the canned solo. That attempt to connect the past with the ZPZ present fully revealed this invigoration of Zappa’s corpus as an overly wistful tribute act. The concert on the screen oozed passion from every lick. The effect was unfortunately to show what we were missing.
Zappa Plays Zappa was precise, skillful, and enjoyable. It featured some of the best musicians in the world, and by the way, saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist Schelia Gonzalez deserves her own tribute act. We got to see one of the most unique guitarists playing right now, Dweezil Zappa, who riffed for just-not-long-enough over the most original chord progressions a rock band will ever play. Its too bad he doesn’t see fit to truly inherit the Zappa throne of innovation and take these songs into his own hands. He would work wonders with them. These are symphonies, true. But it is also rock and roll. I mean, they don’t throw toilet paper at Beethoven performances, do they?