?Zappa plays Zappaƒ?TM at the State

By Jesse Sawyer

My parents are cooler than your parents. It’s just a fact, and it’s time we got it out of the way. My dad plays in a band and sports a handlebar mustache. My mom brings me food and beer and doesn’t mind the fact that I answer her phone calls with “What’s up, dyke?” I’m sure your parents love you and that’s swell. They just can’t compete with mine for coolness. Your parents probably introduced you to Paul Simon’s Graceland, right? Mine woke me up most mornings with Led Zeppelin IV blaring from the living room stereo. It just doesn’t compare.

There are few bands that my parents haven’t seen live at some point in their lives. Listening to the car stereo on the twenty-five minute drive into downtown Duluth, they’d punctuate the silence between songs with “I saw them at the DECC,” memories of an era since passed, when cool bands still made stops in my hometown. It was always a source of regret for me, that I’d never see these bands in their prime. But none so much as the eccentric genius of Frank Zappa, whose music was so totally ingrained in the fabric of my parents’ musical background that they threw birthday parties in his honor following his death in 1993.

It was only fitting that I went with Mom and Dad to the Zappa Plays Zappa show on Friday, October 20, at the State Theater. We got loaded and got set, bonding over the shared experience of shotgunning cans of High Life and passing a joint to get our heads straight for a proper Zappa experience. The show was to be the first authoritative performance of Frank Zappa’s work since his death, fronted by his son Dweezil and featuring longtime Zappa band members Terry Bozzio on drums, Steve Vai on guitar, and Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals and saxophone, as well as a backing band. I may not be able to see the man himself in person, but this was as close as I was gonna get.
After having initial problems at the gate (Mom and Dad were a little too tipsy), we found our seats, excellent balcony spots in a venue that has no bad seating whatsoever. Taking the time to scan the crowd served as a lesson in the generational differences in reception to Zappa’s music. While there were certainly as many members of my generation as there were of my parents’ in attendance, I noticed something I’ve wondered about all my life: ‘cool’ kids don’t listen to Frank anymore. Or rather, ‘hip’ kids, I should say, since the difference is potentially vast.

The majority of the fans seemed to be musicians (marked either by their branded clothing or their obvious gear-geek fascination with the stage equipment) and some were dreaded neo-hippie freaksters, replete with white-kid dreads, oversized clothes, and the bulge of a hacky-sack in every pocket. I found my way to the cash bar, dodging clouds of patchouli and talk of ‘polyrhythmic composition,’ wondering what it all meant. In an age when the underground music scene supposedly grows more eclectic and accessible through the wide reach of internet file-sharing, why aren’t more people getting into Zappa? Is he simply too weird for today’s uptight Pitchfork-approved tastes? If so, what does that say about today’s self-described ‘independent’ listeners?

With the audience visibly anxious for a show that could either enthrall or disappoint, the band took to the stage, with Dweezil carrying one of his father’s well-worn Gibson SG guitars, and wearing the ugliest fucking pants I have ever seen. Regardless of his sartorial shortcomings, Dweezil proved from the outset that he has some of Papa Frank’s magic, opening the performance with Zappa’s signature conducting, in which the band leader uses unorthodox cues and hand gestures to direct the band through a difficult improvisation. The band proved able, as they would throughout the night, to keep up with the technical demands of this type of music, and the homage was a welcome introduction.
The show focused mainly on Zappa’s output from 1966’s Freak Out! to 1974’s Apostrophe(‘), a fifteen-album period (!) that provided ample opportunities for the band to extend itself into the Zappa ether. They sounded best when Brock sang, as he does on the original albums, augmented by a female harmonist, and worst at the few times when only Frank’s trademark baritone would’ve satisfied. The addition of drum icon Terry Bozzio, still as insane and flippant onstage as he was over twenty years ago, was welcomed with a frenzy, as was guitar god Steve Vai’s appearance. With this veteran-flanked lineup, the concert reached towering new heights, with songs extending well beyond their original lengths, guitar duels, and Terry Bozzio performing the notoriously-difficult “Black Page” drum line, augmented with fills that even the original lacked.
The show focused more on the technically-complex compositions of Zappa’s catalog, perhaps in deference to the musician-heavy fanbase in attendance, but hit the mark best when this was balanced with Frank’s trademark humor and rock sensibilities. This was apparent in the extended performance of “Montana,” the highlight of the concert, whose sing-along chorus (“Moving to Montana soon / Gonna be a dental floss tycoon”) balanced out the more jam-oriented elements perfectly.

The show didn’t disappoint. But, then again, maybe it couldn’t have. The first song got a standing ovation, and each and every song afterward received the same treatment. This was an audience hungry for Zappa’s music, whether as a nostalgic reminder of seeing him back in the good old days, or as a stand-in for a man who tragically passed before a generation of fans could see him live. As I helped my parents stumble through the exit, I caught the glazed expression in my dad’s eye and he smiled. “Was it like that?” I asked him. “Yeah. It was like that,” he grinned, “almost exactly like that.”