Zappa Plays Zappa at Rams Head
There was no way of escaping the fact that the Zappa Plays Zappa show at Rams Head Live last night took place in Baltimore.
When the white Fender Olympic Strat guitar that Dweezil Zappa wanted to use for the second song of the set didn’t work, it was like the lights going out during the Super Bowl last Sunday. Someone from the gallery voiced as much blaming either the city of San Francisco or its football team. It was the first of many incongruous football related references shouted out from a predominantly gray-bearded audience during the show.
Dweezil wasn’t quite as pissed-off as Raven’s coach John Harbaugh was when the lights went out, but he was visibly frustrated that his game plan had been disrupted. He takes it all very seriously and had mapped out the band’s performance, planning on using the appropriate guitar for each song. He told us the song he was about to play, “Hungry Freaks Daddy,” from Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s 1967 debut album Freak Out, would have sounded better (or more like the original version) with the Fender than with the brand new Frank Zappa model Gibson SG he had used for the first song, “Zombie Woof,” from the Over-Nite Sensation album.
He spent the last 20 minutes of the sound check soloing on the Fender, running it through every gadget and gizmo on the stage. During a pre-show guitar clinic (available to concert goers for an additional fee), which turned out to be a private lesson for one with two observers, he talked about the new Gibson’s personality, the specific albums on which his father used the original it was modeled after, and that the new model would soon be available to the public.
While the Fender was out of commission Dweezil tore it up on the SG and the six-piece Zappa Plays Zappa band ripped through renditions of “Dirty Love” and a “Montana” sing-along from Over-Nite Sensation as well as “Penguin in Bondage,” “Pygmy Twilight,” and “Echindna’s Arf” from Roxy and Elsewhere. There’s not a lot of interpretation or veering from his father’s compositions and/or arrangements. Throughout the two-hour set, I marveled at how well Zappa Plays Zappa replicates the sound of Frank Zappa’s expansive catalog from the different periods of his 40-years-worth of recordings. Other highlights included “Wind up Working in a Gas Station,” from Zoot Allures, a wildly theatrical and relatively obscure “Evil Prince” from Thing Fish and a guttural “Debra Kadabra,” from Bongo Fury with a Captain Beefheart impersonation by band’s tour manager Pete Jones.
When the Fender returned from its exile, Dweezil featured it on the appropriately titled “Outside Now” with a soaring solo from Joe’s Garage followed by a ferocious “Packard Goose” finale from the same album.
Dweezil talked about his father’s statue in Highlandtown, asked if anybody in the crowd had been there lately and if those in attendance would be interested and supportive of creating some kind of annual Frank Zappa festival as a means of recognizing his old man’s connection to the city. He followed with what has become and obligatory version of “What’s New in Baltimore,” from Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, answering the repeated refrain with even more Ravens references. The crowd loved it.
The band closed the show with the emotional ballad “Strictly Genteel,” from Orchestral Favorites, which Dweezil said was Frank’s personal favorite of his own songs.
The private-lesson guitar clinic was a real treat for George Tsamoutales of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, whose band Snakebite specializes in Southern Rock. Tsamoutales was already familiar with Dweezil having previously attended Zappa’s Dweezilla guitar camp in upstate New York.
“You can see how nice of a person he is,” said Tsmatoutales. “He’ll interact with you one-on-one. He gave me specific examples of ways to solo, specific to the style of music we play. The more you challenge him, he challenges you back. It’s like he’s a sparring partner but egoless.”