Zappa Plays Zappa: forgiving the 1970s

Dweezil Zappa on stage at the Royal Hall for Zappa plays Zappa. (Picture by Stuart Rhodes)
Dweezil Zappa on stage at the Royal Hall for Zappa plays Zappa. (Picture by Stuart Rhodes)

Review by Graham Chalmers

Zappa Plays Zappa, Royal Hall, Harrogate.

“I’m getting a thrill from the idea of doing this one inside the Royal Hall,” says Dweezil Zappa as his band launch into Penguin in Bondage – or words to that affect.

A bit later, while his multi-talented sax player Scheila Gonzalez is pretending to light up a huge joint made from a large-size replica of a high school diploma, the leader of Zappa Plays Zappa will again muse loudly then laugh to himself at the idea of all this madness happening in such a respectable-looking institution as Harrogate’s Royal Hall.

Surely such things don’t happen in stiff, old Harrogate (little does he know!), do they?

Well, it’s not stiff tonight. The likably polite but mischievous Dweezil may look like his dad with all the wildness taken out (cleanish shaven, no moustache) but he soon has the crowd doing a very special style of free-style dancing - without embarassment.

It’s all part of the show, all part of this acclaimed six-piece band’s performance of the late Frank Zappa’s challenging but memorable live album from 1974, Roxy & Elsewhere – all 68 minutes of it in sequence.

Times were different in the days of Nixon and Watergate, looser and more anti-authoritarian.

It wasn’t just about music or even self-expression as such, it was about shaking things up, undermining moral conventions.

Theatricality was nothing to be scared of and, at times tonight, the Grammy Award-winning Zappa Plays Zappa come across like an off-Broadway show, a counter-culture cabaret mixed with rude comedy sketches

At no point, however, do any of the shenanigans on stage threaten to over shadow the music itself, which constantly dazzles and surprises.

Once the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Zappa’s biting satirical attacks on mainstream society mutated into a new, even more musically ambitious form.

No longer quite as much an outsider in changing times, rather than merely pointing out what he thought was wrong, he let his music do the talking, turning his band into an example of what an alternative way of living could be - embracing all styles of playing and all genres of music, often within a single track.

Derided by punks later in the 70s as self-indulgent pretension, as recreated with incredible technical skill and joyous verve by Zappa Plays Zappa they are revealed inside the golden Edwardian splendour of the Royal Hall to be simply brilliant.

Not a diehard fan myself, it’s turning into one of the best gigs I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s packed with energy and it’s a lot of fun.

Dweezil himself is a phenomenally impressive guitar player, makes shifting gear at top speed on a regular basis look incredibly easy, as do the rest of his expert instrumentalists.

There is never a dull moment, never a wasted one – and, as a fan of the Sex Pistols, I never thought I’d ever hear myself saying that about a prog rock jazz fusion outfit.

If technique ever threatens to overwhelm content, within a heartbeat songs such as Dummy Up, Echidna’s Arf (Of You) and More Trouble Every Day throw up an unexpected moment of beauty or shock, tenderness and violence coming in equalt measure, brain and heart battling in a stimulating but seemingly never-ending musical duel.

The songs do end, as does the album, and Zappa Plays Zappa return after the interval for an epic second half of potted Zappa highlights from the 70s predominantly, including an amazing performance of the notoriously complex, Black Page from the Zappa in New York album, featuring a blistering display of percussive pyrotechnics from drummer Ryan Brown.

For the encore Dweezil and his instrument-swapping accompanists play a couple of the ‘greatest hits’ of the Zappa canon – Cosmik Debris off Apostrophe, Muffin Man of Bongo Fury.

There’s been a real rapport between the half-full auditorium and the band in a way you rarely get at ‘indie’ gigs these days.

Neither party really wants this special night to end and Dweezil seems delighted to accept the standing ovations.

It has to be said when it comes to live music, the 70s were, in fact, better, much as I like to buy new albums and live in the present day,

Sex-obsessed puerile tendencies aside, it may also be that Dweezils’ dad was exactly what he always said he was - a genius.

And I’ve got the wonderful Zappa Plays Zappa to thank for teaching me that.