Published on December 12th, 2007 | by Vincent BlackShadow0
Zappa Plays Zappa
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, November 30
It was easy to be sceptical when Dweezil Zappa announced he was getting a band together to play his father’s music. Dweezil having made no great dent in the musical world on his own, the more cynical among us might have seen it as a desperate grab for glory. But what went down at the Hamer Hall over two nights last week was enough to wipe the sneer off anyone’s face.
In the 13 years since Frank Zappa’s death, Dweezil feared that his father’s music was failing to get the appreciation it deserved and set himself the task of assembling a band who could bring Frank’s music to a new audience, just like an orchestra would play the works of a composer.
What Dweezil has put together is nothing short of remarkable. With eight crack musicians, including original Frank Zappa alumni Ray White (vocals) and Steve Vai, any notion that this was a “tribute” band — or worse, a “cover band” – was quickly dispelled. With 80 albums to choose from Dweezil couldn’t please everybody, but the choices reflected nearly every era of Frank’s output. The set ranged from a funk arrangement of How Could I Be Such a Fool? from The Mothers’ debut Freak Out, to obscure live classics like Lonely Little Girl and a monster rendition of Dupree’s Paradise, which included a gospel section where Ray White improvised the lyrics from audience suggestions. The only thing missing was the Varèse inspired musique concrete smatterings that link many songs on the original albums.
They delved into the hits as well, knocking out a blistering version of Montana with Frank delivering the vocals on a giant screen behind the band, Ray White’s smooth soulful vocals were pretty good on San Ber’dino, Willy the Pimp, Uncle Remus and Pygmy Twylyght, but Ray’s getting on a bit and he struggled to hit the heights he did in the 70s. He’s also a total ham – pulling out an afro wig and medallion during Willy the Pimp and continuously high-fiving the front row.
Perhaps it was the family vibe, but the show was conspicuously devoid of the sleaze that Frank was often criticised for. The only nod in that direction was during Yo Mama from Sheik Yerbouti.
This being a Zappa gig, the focus was on the guitar work. Dweezil’s playing was spectacular – his ability to imitate his father’s style, often playing solos note-for-note, was uncanny. But the real star of the show was Steve Vai. His guitar acrobatics were jaw dropping and he gave the band some much needed stage presence. It was a pity he was only onstage for a few songs.
Judging from the audience, Dweezil’s project was a success, with ages ranging from teens to the baby boomers who would have caught the Zappa bug the first time around. There were also the types that Frank satirised – the two drunk guys in the balcony who left after they realised this show was not going to be all about Titties & Beer. It seems Australia drinks and goes home as well.