Progressive Nation Act III: Zappa Plays Zappa

As mentioned previously, I’m something of a Zappa fanatic. I was lucky enough to see the man onstage twice in the 80s; his peculiar hybrid of obscenely-complicated art/jazz/rock/whatever crossed with a withering sense of irony and a jaundiced eye toward poseurs of all stripes rendered his music tailor-made for a proto-postmodern twentysomething mulleted me.

Or something like that. Besides, he had a song called “Broken Hearts Are for @$$holes.” What’s not to love?

Around that time, I bought a 45rpm record by two of Frank’s progeny: son Dweezil on guitar, and daughter Moon Unit on vocals. “My Mother is a Space Cadet” b/w ” Crunchy Water” wasn’t a deathless slab of music, but neither did it suck. And it definitely showed promise. So while I didn’t follow Dweezil’s subsequent solo career that closely, I did take some note of it, especially the fact that he was developing into one helluva musician.

With Frank’s tragic passing due to cancer in the 90s,  it seemed like that-was-that Zappawise. But thanks to groups like Ensemble Modern (who performed the master’s classical works) and tribute acts like Project Object (who have endured something approaching harassment from the Zappa Family Trust — but that’s another story), FZ’s music stayed alive, and his reputation grew.

It didn’t grow in that morbid posthumous way that we see with some artists — Elvis, Michael Jackson (come on!) and so forth — but it did blossom. People started to take his legacy a bit more seriously; they put the scatological humor stuff into its proper context and allowed themselves to appreciate the intricacies of his massive catalog.

It was against that backdrop that Dweezil assembled some of the best musicians out there — and let’s face it, if you ain’t among the best, you can’t play Zappa — and put together ZPZ. I first saw the group at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville NC a couple of years ago; in all my years of concertgoing, never before (and not since) have I witnessed a performance in which the band got a well-earned standing ovation after every single song. I kid you not.

With that in mind, I was definitely planning to see them again. Even though they were to be second-billed to an act in which I had only marginal interest, I considered the ZPZ show a must-see. And I was not disappointed. From the opening number — the classic fan favorite “Peaches En Regalia” — through impossibly complicated numbers like “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” and “The Black Page #2” the band kept it going in jawdropping fashion. Dweezil’s band concentrated on the tougher material, though they did pull out selections dating back to Uncle Meat (1969) and even the fun, rocking “Magic Fingers” from 200 Motels (1971).

What’s perhaps most unique about ZPZ (and it’s definitely a hallmark of FZ’s music) is that they manage to play this terrifyingly complex music with feeling. Yes, they’re executing neck-snapping musical left turns throughout, but they’re laughing their @$$es off the whole time too. Special notice to saxophonist/keyboardist/vocalist Scheila Gonzales for her amazing performance throughout the show.

If there were any disappointments for me at all — and yes, I’m stretching a bit here to think of any — I did miss Gonzales’ two-saxes-at-once trick (longtime Zappa fans will doubtless agree that FZ would have had a wicked, sneering cackle at the sexual connotations thereof). And I missed Dweezil’s guitar duets with a big-screen Dad — achieved thanks to the fact that Frank recorded many gigs with multi-camera shots and multi-track audio. Those duets were the closest thing to poignancy that could be imagined at an event with the Zappa name attached to it.

I could have left after that, and been more than satisfied. But no.