The Purple Lagoon >
City of Tiny Lites
The Idiot Bastard Son
Broken Hearts are for Assholes
Bamboozled by Love
Wet T-Shirt Nite >
He Used to Cut the Grass
Willie the Pimp
E: I'm the Slime
I've been thinking about what exactly it is that makes a cover band a cover band, as opposed to an act that happens to play songs written by other people. The term "cover band," besides being a descriptive term is, of course, often used as an insult, implying that the group plays others' songs because they are unable to write their own and are therefore inferior to others who do. But no one accused Elvis, or Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin of being "cover" artists. They are performers more in the mold of actors in that they interpret and perform material written by others. It doesn't matter that Carole King wrote "Natural Woman." What matters is Aretha recorded what is considered widely to be the definitive version of the song. The defining difference is that interpretation. A cover band attempts to re-create the original recorded version of a song, often to please an audience who could just as well be listening to a DJ, but are instead witnessing a live performance. What they generally do not do, is interpret the material or attempt to put their own stamp on it.
Zappa Plays Zappa is the "official" vehicle for the live performance of the music of Frank Zappa. The band is helmed by Zappa's son Dweezil and is mostly made up of unknown musicians. The three tours have included one or more "special guests" from Zappa's touring bands. The first featured Napolean Murphy Brock from the 1973-75 bands on vocals and sax for most of the show and guitarist Steve Vai (1980-82) and drummer Terry Bozzio (1975-78) for shorter portions. The second featured Brock only for most of the show. The current tour features singer and guitarist Ray White (1976, 1980-84). There has been a good bit of unpleasantness between the Zappa family and the various cover bands playing Frank's music. The contention seems to be mostly over claims of unpaid royalties, differences of opinion on the quality of the cover bands' performances and their possibly liberal interpretations of the music and on the rights to exploit Frank Zappa's name. I will not recount any of that here. I only note it because some fans and band members have accused Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa project as also being merely another cover band.
ZPZ played in Pompano Beach on the first tour two years ago. I delayed buying tickets owing to what I thought a ridiculous ticket price (one of the highest on the tour and considerably more than the following nights in Orlando and Atlanta). That tour has since been captured on DVD. This tour promised different material than that one, which drew heavily from the Napolean Murphy Brock era of the band as well as late 70's and early 80's material performed by the bands including Bozzio and Vai. This tour has focused more on the Joe's Garage album as well as some of Zappa's lesser-played instrumental pieces.
After a quick hello and thank you from Dweezil to all for attending, the band got right to work playing two instrumentals from the early 70s, The Purple Lagoon and Imaginary Diseases. The Purple Lagoon is one of Zappa's rhythmically difficult pieces, while Imaginary Diseases is a jazzy horn driven piece usually including some soloing. Neither were staples of Frank Zappa's stage show. The Purple Lagoon was only played from the mid-1970s through 1976, when it was released on the 1976 album Zappa in New York. Imaginary Diseases was only played on the Petit Wazoo tour of 1973 and was not released until 2006 on the album of recordings from that tour. They started off brilliantly, nailing both pieces, with Dweezil playing a great solo in Imaginary Diseases. Ray White walked on stage at the conclusion and the band dropped right into City of Tiny Lites, playing the original Sheik Yerbouti arrangement, as opposed to the mildly different arrangement played in later bands that included White. This is a trend that would continue throughout the evening.
Following a guitar change (from a hollow-bodied Hagstrom to a custom SG based on of Frank's guitars), Dweezil announced the next song as one "we learned for the last tour, but we liked playing it so much that we learned it again." Pygmy Twylyte, from 1974's Roxy & Elsewhere album was followed by several more from that era. The 1974 band arrangement of The Idiot Bastard Son and Cheepnis featured lead vocals by Ray White, with Frank's spoken parts on Cheepnis performed by drummer Joe Travers, who also took the vocal on what Dweezil described as a "bluesy" version of Cosmik Debris. This was the first left turn of the night. Cosmik Debris was completely re-invented as a slow blues featuring slide guitar by rhythm guitarist Jamie Kime and an excellent solo by Dweezil. The performance was amusing, fun and well-played, like much of the best of Frank's live work. About here, the band began to remark on the incredible heat in the venue. It felt like the air conditioning was off for most of the show, only being turned on infrequently for a few minutes at a time.
After Cosmik Debris, Ray left the stage while the rest of the band played a version of G-Spot Tornado arranged for rock band. Dweezil announced is as a track from the Yellow Shark album, but the arrangement was based on the original Jazz from Hell Synclavier track. The performance was not perfect, but was quite impressive, with Dweezil and Joe Travers in particular turning in excellent performances. This was a track that none of Frank's bands ever played live, and was only performed for the first time at the Yellow Shark concerts after members of the Ensemble Modern requested an arrangement for the program.
Ray returned sans guitar for a couple from Sheik Yerbouti: Flakes and Broken Hearts are for Assholes. In the first, the album arrangement was played note-for-note (including the feedback guitar overdub over the whole second half) but the band had a little fun with it in keyboard player Scheila Gonzalez's replacement of Adrian Belew's original Bob Dylan impersonation with one of Eric Cartman. Broken Hearts are for Assholes, on the other hand featured the album arrangement exactly including all of the original vocal ad-libs. A slow-fast-slow arrangement of Bamboozled by Love followed with a blistering Dweezil solo and powerful vocals from White. Everyone near me was suitably impressed, with one person declaring that he had gotten his money's worth at that point.
For me, the highlight of the show (besides the opening two pieces) was King Kong. Ray White again left the stage and the band launched into an arrangement based on the (again) original 1968 arrangement, but without the second melody (The Ark) that was only played by that band. Everyone in the group got a chance to stretch out here, with Gonzalez playing a wah-wah sax solo in the vein of Ian Underwood and Billy Hulting playing both a marimba solo and adding vocal interjections a la 70's-80's percussionist Ed Mann. Dweezil conducted the band for a while in the middle and, when the audience seemed appreciative, moved from the stage to the audience and back again. Following a couple more solos, Dweezil called Ray back out and asked him to improvise a song based on three things: mayonnaise, his Uncle Carl (Frank's brother) and the Three Stooges. He then told a story about his sister Moon visiting their grandmother and finding Carl having fun with the mayonnaise while the Three Stooges played in the background. I will the leave the rest to your filthy imagination. Ray responded with a hilarious set of lyrics about Carl and the mayonnaise, which then became the theme of the rest of the show, with band members working mayonnaise and the Three Stooges into the lyrics or interjecting them at appropriate places.
The bulk of the rest of the show was dedicated to the Joe's Garage album, all in the album arrangements (which Frank's band never played live), complete with Frank's original "Central Scrutizer" bits played back to introduce the songs and (I believe) note-perfect renditions of Frank's solos. Ray White handled Ike Willis' original vocals superbly, with Dweezil and Scheila performing the parts played by Frank and Dale Bozzio in the Wet T-Shirt scene. A short Willie the Pimp followed, with "Goodnight. Let us go get some oxygen and we'll come back and play one more." One more was I'm the Slime featuring Billy Hulting on vocals.
Is Zappa Plays Zappa merely a cover band, or something different? In a recent Guitar World interview, Dweezil states that "We treat Frank's music the same as any other composer—Mozart, Beethoven or whoever. Orchestras that play that music don't rearrange it, put in new notes and say 'I'm gonna do it my way.' When people do that with Frank's music, it's actually quite annoying to me." He goes on to speak of his disappointment in hearing the original Kinks recording of "You Really Got Me" after hearing Van Halen's version, which he didn't realize was a cover, which comes back to the original quandary. Van Halen, when they performed Ray Davies' song, did not merely cover the Kinks' version of the song, they made it their own.
In taking this position, Dweezil ignores that while orchestras may not radically change pieces they perform, the truth is that different conductors and ensembles emphasize different parts of the music. Otherwise, there is hardly any point in playing it live. One can always listen to a recording if one wants to hear a recording. The essence of live performance is a certain spontaneity, a sense that something could happen (or will happen) that has never been done before and won't be done again in exactly the same way. This is what keeps the music fresh. To slavishly re-create on stage what has been already done on a record is to keep the music a part of the past, rather than a vital part of the living world. Frank Zappa understood this. He continually revisited his older works and re-arranged them to best suit the talents of the musicians who floated through his group. His best asset as a bandleader was to identify the specific talents of the musicians in his groups and write or arrange pieces to their strengths. The live rendition rarely matched the album cut, unless the album was recorded totally live, but the notes were always there and the pieces matched the spirit of the original.
In putting together Zappa Plays Zappa, Dweezil is acting more as a curator for his father's music, specifically the recorded works, than as a bandleader. Ironically, Zappa Plays Zappa is at its best when it owns the material, when the members aren't trying to play the exact notes with the exact same tone as Peter Wolf had in 1980 or re-creating Patrick O'Hearn's vocal ad-libs from 1977. The most exciting parts of the show were when the band did something unexpected: Scheila's Cartman impression in Flakes, Dweezil conducting the audience or exhorting Ray to sing about Carl and the Mayonnaise, Joe Travers shouting about the Three Stooges during the second half of the show to get his band mates laughing, Cosmik Debris as a slow blues. The music still comes through and it still "speaks for itself" in this moments, the same as in the rest of the show, but it's in these moments that the music is really brought to life and I hope in future tours Dweezil steps back from his quest to re-create albums and allows more of these moments. It is then that Zappa Plays Zappa will be a monumental thing and will do proper service to the composer whose music they are playing.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Purple Lagoon >