“Hey, fellas,” says James Brown. “It’s a brand new funk!” But it could just as well have been Frank Zappa talking about his latest Mothers of Invention. Ever since the addition of George Duke on keyboards as the group’s first black member, Zappa’s music has been steadily heading back to the rhythm and blues he grew up on. The Mothers now feature two more black members, Chester Thompson on drums and Napoleon Murphy Brock on reeds and vocals. Others in the group are Ruth Underwood on vibes, marimbas and percussion and Tom Fowler on bass. All six are serious, professional musicians, and the light and sound crews are second to none.
If the performance Saturday evening was superior to previous Mothers’ concerts, it was because the band had just swung through Little Rock, Memphis, Mobile and Miami, never receiving enthusiastic audience support. In Little Rock, Zappa said during an interview, “The people sat with their mouths open. They liked it, but they didn’t know what to do with it.”
The Bayfront crowd knew just what to do from the moment the band hit the stage. From the opening strains of “Penguin in Bondage” straight through “Apostrophe,” the grand finale, the Mothers played off the energy of the audience, exploring new avenues, reaching incredible peaks. The lights were extremely fine, and the addition of a new sound board was highly responsible for the clarity of sound. But in the final analysis, it was the band which simply blew the audience’s collective mind. After the opener, Frank reached back into Uncle Meat for “Dog Breath” and “The Dog Breath Variations.”
A guest TV personality was announced, and out bounced Lance Loud, “the first television-manufactured queer,” from PBS’s An American Family. He sang “Night Owl” to the 50s beat provided by the band. It was the true return of the stage show, and the audience loved it. The next tune, untitled [“Dupree’s Paradise”], was a jazz-based piece which gave everyone a turn to cook.
In the middle of a righteous solo by Zappa, he suddenly burst into Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” with Nappy scat-singing over the top of the band. Tom Fowler was rock-steady as ever, and while Ruth did not take any long solos, her vibes and marimbas were a great addition to every song.
The next trio of songs really got the audience excited. “Pygmy Twylyte” was in the Earth, Wind and Fire vein but went beyond the capabilities of that group, with George Duke providing his heavy funky keyboards for the group to ride on. Napoleon was the real showman with both vocals and dance routine. He did an excellent job also with “Idiot Bastard Son.” “Cheapness Blues” wound up the trio.
[This review was originally entitled “Zappa & Mothers excel at Bayfront” and was printed in the University of South Florida Oracle July 16, 1974, Vol. 9, No. 46. A shorter version also appeared in the Tampa Tribune. Following are more notes and observations.]
The opportunity to review this concert arose only days before the show itself. I was delighted to discover that I could attend the afternoon soundcheck. That in itself was a remarkable event. Zappa was a perfectionist. The soundcheck took about an hour. He started with the drum kit and knew the location of every microphone. Once the bass, drums and keyboards were set, Fowler, Thompson and Duke began to enjoy themselves. All of a sudden, they ripped into “Chameleon,” the Herbie Hancock tune. George Duke put on a master performance, and understand that I had just seen Herbie nine days earlier in the same building. George cut Herbie. That is all.
Tom Waits was the opener as a solo, primarily on piano. Zappa crowds were not particularly patient with openers, so Waits’s set received luke-warm response, although I thought it was wonderful. I had the chance to interview him afterward, and he was great to talk to. He acknowledged that these slots were tough but that they were great opportunities to meet a wider audience.
After the show, Zappa was an animated interview. He talked about the band (when trading with Duke: Go first; you don’t want to follow him!) and how tonight’s crowd was much more receptive to the performance. I asked him about people he was listening to, and he immediately mentioned Big Mama Thornton (the original “Ball and Chain”) and a name I didn’t know: Johnny Guitar Watson. Watson had been performing since 1954, and his first album and hit song were titled “Gangster of Love,” which Steve Miller borrowed. His career exploded after recording with Zappa (One Size Fits All and more) and then his own monster albums The Gangster is Back, Ain’t That a Bitch and A Real Mother For Ya.
Here is the setlist, courtesy of zappateers.com:
soundcheck intro, Penguin In Bondage, T’Mershi Duween, Dog Breath Variations, Montana, improvisations* (incl. The Booger Man, Nite Owl, q: Pushin’ Too Hard), Dupree’s Paradise (q: Gloria), Pygmy Twylyte (incl. Dummy Up), The Idiot Bastard Son, Cheepnis, Cosmik Debris, Willie The Pimp (incl. San Ber’dino riff), Camarillo Brillo, Apostrophe
With Lance Loud on vocals (*) [q; means quoting]