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Arts and Entertainment

Zappa Plays Zappa at the Wiltern 8/23/07 He Says

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It was a hell of a thing to see Dweezil Zappa onstage at the Wiltern last night, jamming with his pop, who of course passed away fourteen years ago. You can thank modern technology. Frank was projected on a large screen behind the actual living musicians, who played along to his vocal and guitar tracks.

Of course we’ve seen this kind of thing before, Natalie Cole’s sentimental duet with her father being the first that comes to mind, and Kenny G forcibly inserting into himself into Louis Armstrong being the most offensive. It’s not easy to be openhearted about the concept with these kind of predecessors. But I have to admit, this one actually worked.

Dweezil first brought the Zappa Plays Zappa concept to life last year, performing key moments from his dad’s catalog with several band alumni. This year, there’s only one guy from the old days but it’s a good one: Ray White, the elder Zappa’s vocalist and guitarist from 1978 to the bitter end, whose voice has held up remarkably well. Surrounding him, a bunch of ringers who appear to be serious music school types. Young but ferocious players, launching into these endlessly complex tunes for a solid three hours with no fear. And for five tunes, Phantom Frank takes over the airwaves and demands the live players synch up with him, still telling everybody what to do.

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It helps that the band itself is about as formidable as Frank’s own used to be. Multi-instrumentalist Sheila Gonzales certainly deserves the VIP award for versatility, spending much of the night with one hand on the keyboard and the other on a saxophone, often playing them simultaneously. She also had the most impressive solo turn of the night, responding to Dweezil’s demand to solo on one horn while droning on the other – which she did – at which point he tried to stick a flute in her mouth, and god damn if she didn’t play that too.

Dweezil himself has sure improved as a player since I last heard him, which is probably around the time of Don Johnson’s Heartbeat. He held his own as the lead guitarist in one of the most technically impressive groups I’ve seen. Ultimately he was only upstaged by his own dad, when he/ they attempted dueling solos in Cosmik Debris.

An operation like this can live or die on its set list, which was pretty good. If anyone was expecting Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow followed by Valley Girl followed by Dinah Moe Humm, they were in for a disappointment. But if anyone was fearing three hours of jazz fusion jackoff, they were in for an ass kicking. Mostly, this was about Frank the Composer, the kind of presentation of his work that the Lincoln Center might be doing in 2079. Luckily, this band had the panache to pull off repetitive drone (Dumb All Over), silky Steely schmooze (Illinois Enema Bandit), balls-out rock (Muffin Man), and even abstract stuff which was written to be performed by computers (G-Spot Tornado).

There were a handful of flat spots, at least to this guy anyway, who remains a Zappa fan but not devotee. But even those flat spots seemed intentional; I believe they MEANT for it to sound that way. And really, a handful during three hours is not too bad a batting average. The Frank Freaks I knew in attendance claimed to be blown away by every single moment of every song.

It was kind of funny, though, watching those folks smirk at each other from the stage. Zappa’s always had that smirking kind of band, and Dweezil is his father’s son. The smirk was so large, at several times the house lights had to be turned on, so he could see how much we were digging him and he could smirk harder. But his dad wore that smirk too, and all it really means is, success. I just pulled off a gnarly guitar solo over 17/16 time, and I’m damn proud of myself for doing so. And hell, why shouldn’t he be?

Next time just leave the house lights off and all will be forgiven.

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All photos by Elise Thompson for LAist