22 February 2014

Wherein I discuss the nature of tribute, bands, tribute bands, and FZ's legacy



...every time I have seen ZPZ ... I walk away more impressed. And mildly concussed, but I discuss that more below.

As I remarked to my friend Phil last night, when other people my age were busy forming their adult musical tastes around whichever acts were popular in the early 2000s, I was beginning my deep dive into the music of the Project Object itself. No, not the music of the FZ tribute band "Project Object," though they are good. I refer to the work of the man, the mustache, the legend, Frank Zappa. What prompted this conversation? What event brought Phil and I together on a warmish night in late February? It was to drive up to York, PA to see Dweezil & the gang perform as "Zappa Plays Zappa" (ZPZ), playing the very music that forms the bedrock, cornerstone, and even a few oddly shaped windows that make up the building metaphor of my musical taste. By the time the evening was over and my hearing was returning to normal and we were safely back inside my thankfully un-towed car, I found myself wondering if ZPZ deserves the "Tribute" Label.
This was my third time seeing the group. I saw them at the Warner Theater in DC when they first toured and for an FZ fan like me who discovered the music too late to see Frank, this was the closest I could ever come (until we get holodecks; where are we with that, DARPA? MIT? Anyone?). I saw ZPZ again a couple years back at Ram's Head Live in Baltimore. The first show had featured several band members from Frank's touring rosters. By this most recent show in York all the faces were players who I am pretty sure never toured with Frank, but oh man are they every bit the caliber of musician that Frank required and his music will always demand.



The tricky thing about working in a tribute band is that you walk a fine line. On one side most people are coming to hear the music to which you are paying homage, not to hear you for your own talents, per se; only inasmuch as you can effectively reproduce live those sounds that the concertgoer longs to hear once again. On the other side of that ever so narrow line is the reason you became a musician in the first place: to express yourself as an artist. For the right artist, for the right tribute band playing the right music, there can be a lot of room on that thin line. But then, what is really a "tribute" band?
For everyone who knows anything about FZ beyond yellow snow and valley girls, we recognize that his touring bands grew, shrank, grew again, had the occasional growth removed, briefly experimented with an all-carp lineup, but over the years always featured an evolving roster of top-level talent (George Duke). I therefore posit that the non-Zappa DNA-having members of ZPZ are the latest incarnation of that touring band, and the real change is that Dweezil has replaced FZ in front of the group. If we still consider ZPZ a tribute act, then ultimately the one person who must be concerned with treading carefully on this line is the front man and heir himself, Dweezil. Before we consider the nature of the band and the pass judgment on her leader, I want to make sure I note my impressions of the band.
Working from stage left, Scheila Gonzalez sings, saxes, flutes, keys, and dances her way right into the part of your brain that keeps your jaw from hanging open and shuts it off. Anyone that talented who can do a full show standing in those 3" (4"? they were high, but I'm a guy who was half way back in the orchestra) stiletto-heeled boots (for the record, Dweezil wore New Balance sneakers) and have that kind of energy from the aborted opening riff (they had to reboot DZ's MIDI controller -- welcome to the 21st century, rock fans) to the end of the encore ("Muffin Man", what else?) is to be admired. She has been up there every time I have seen ZPZ and each time I walk away more impressed. And mildly concussed, but I discuss that more below.
Ben Thomas. Ben hunched his shoulders around the mic in his hands, fauxhawk in perfect disorder, carrying the general body language of someone about to spit the latest rap-rock hit; and he opened his mouth and the theater was filled with Frank's voice. Don't mistake my succinct commentary as a dismissal or condemnation of the man's talent. This was not karaoke, and he did a damn fine Brock et al. as each song required (Dummy Up). Plus, any musician who is also up there playing trumpet and trombone is immediately my favorite part of the show.
I wish I had known they needed a horn player. Have trumpet and trombone, will travel. The offer is there. I have been known to play trumpet and timpani at the same time.
While I'm in the general vicinity of percussion, the drummer carries a peculiar burden in FZ's music. "The Black Page" aside -- though interpreted exquisitely by Ryan Brown -- FZ drumming is complex, ever changing, and demanding. It also helps to be able to work complex fractions in your head. Ryan looked like he was having the time of his life back there. His beats were solid, his Chewbacca roar passable, and his stick-twirls the envy of hair bands. They did not play "Montana" last night, so I cannot fully form an opinion of Ryan's playing, but I will confess for the first time in a long time I was hoping that the band would play it. They also have the right voices in the lineup to due justice to the Ikettes part.
What is there to say about a bass player that has not already been said? Kurt Morgan was himself a solid foundation on which the rest of the band could depend. He performed the role of bass player perfectly -- hopped around the stage on two feet, rocked out with Chris on keys and with Ryan on drums, gave us the occasional vocal riff, and somehow tuned his bass and gear so that I did not just hear the line, I felt it. In my throat. As in my neck vibrated sympathetically with the bass riffs. As  in he was playing the resonance frequency of my chest cavity -- hey, that's a great line to use on the right kind of nerd -- but in this case I am stating this quite literally. The sound waves were causing my neck and chest cavity to vibrate, and it was awesome. When it stopped, it felt like something has gone missing. Like a fish pulled out of water, no longer getting input from its electrical/pressure sensing organs.
Hey, electricity; computers run on electricity, and though completely unsurprising, seeing the glowing Apple logo ensconced in the middle of a brushed-aluminum laptop lid is always going to draw my attention. And every time Chris Norton had a solo or a particularly relevant riff, he had my attention. Most guys wearing a fedora on stage and not wearing a suit or at least a collared shirt with it are going to look like either Kid Rock or a douchebag. No they are not the same thing. Because I don't care to be sued and/or beaten up, that's why. What I am trying to say is that Chris made it work because he is a fantastic keyboard player, every bit as good as my other favorite ivory-tickler ('sup Scott?), though I have never seen my other favorite keyboard-master work the synth while playing keys and singing higher than most MDs consider strictly healthy for a grown man. Time to up your game, doc.
I would be remiss if I didn't give Pete Jones a nod for his Captain Beefheart stylings when the band knocked out "Debra Kadabra" in good style. That was fun and unexpected.
That leaves Dweezil. Though I am aware he has his own original material, I will cop to not having listened to it. This does not mean that I do not recognize his own talent and genius at the guitar. Wow. The man can play. I sat in my seat last night listening to his riffs, his lines, and his solos when the thought jumped out at me (right after I reminded myself for the fifth time that if the car had been towed I would stay calm and un-screw the situation) that is, the thought jumped out and danced around in my mind grapes and I thought to myself "is Dweezil better than Frank?" I have listened to so many hours of Frank's playing, and FZ is quite the guitar player; but, I think Dweezil has surpassed his old man, even though any comparison is strictly historical and highly subjective. Dweezil gives the crowd the licks we expect to hear and then he takes them (and us) to new places. Which is what I feel fairly certain Frank would have continued to do over the years, so even though it's a different Man From Zappa in front of the band, the music continues to grow and change and be reinterpreted as the years go by. So really, should ZPZ even be considered a 'Tribute' band? Because they didn't originate the songs they are performing? Then there are a lot of pop singers who should be billed as tribute acts to their writing and producing teams. Never mind the rock bands that are still touring who haven't seen a single original member since the Great Cocaine Shortage of 1993 (it's called hyperbole, folks).
Part of me wanted to wait after the show to get autographs and shake their hands, but it was late and I still had to make sure the car had not been towed (a story for another time) so Phil and I made our way home. Scheila, Ben, Ryan, Kurt, Chris, Dweezil: Thanks for another night of not just keeping the music alive, but keeping it fresh and not smelling funny. You owned it.
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