It is impossible to overstate how much I was looking forward to the Zappa Plays Zappa performance at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg (Sept. 11). I have written about this band numerous times. Their last foray into the Tampa Bay area was a one-hour show opening for Return to Forever in Clearwater (2011), and the band’s spectacular Wanee Music Festival performance this year was a too-short 75 minutes.
ZPZ has been featuring songs from One Size Fits All, honoring that album’s 40th anniversary, but at Wanee they only got to four of the LP’s songs, owing to time constraints and the fact that they CRUSHED “Whipping Post” at the festival formerly hosted and still dominated by the Allman Brothers Band.
Once again, I drastically underestimated what was about to unfold, a monstrous two-and-a-half hour blow-out of a show chock-full of brilliant music and joy. And it started with the theme from Star Wars! That segued to the intro to “Inca Roads.” It took all of five minutes for Dweezil and band to have tears rolling down my cheeks. After Dweezil Zappa’s superb guitar solo, Chris Norton had an awesome synthesizer romp. Norton’s falsetto paired with Scheila Gonzalez’s vocals were perfect.
My first thought was: WOW, he’s played one of the show highlights first tune out. It took me several songs to realize that we were going to get One Size Fits All in order, in its entirety. Accordingly, a bouncing, stomping “Can’t Afford No Shoes” followed, with vocalist Ben Thomas demonstrating why he gets to channel Frank and many other singers of Zappa bands past. A beautiful, sedate reading of “Sofa No. 1” offered the perfect buffer before the next incredible highlight.
That would be “Po-Jama People.” I opined last spring that this is a tune Dweezil would absolutely knock out of the park; he certainly did at Wanee. And again last night. So, within 25 minutes, Dweezil had me crying twice, playing two of the main guitar solos of the night. Or so I thought, incorrectly.
And do I ever love being gloriously, deliciously wrong!
Side two of OSFA starts with “Florentine Pogen,” Thomas nailing the Napoleon Murphy Brock-style vocals. Those conversant with the album were expecting the tune to end, but instead another huge Dweezil solo emerged. When the song was done, he asked each band member what chord they ended with. Each had a different answer. Dweezil explained that, on occasion, they all end on the same chord!
At some point, perhaps here, Dweezil observed that the people who owned apartments to the left of the stage in the courtyard “got free concerts everyday, whether they wanted them or not!” And everyone in the band waved at the apartment balconies to those with the upper-deck view.
Next up was the quirky “Evelyn, a Modified Dog,” vocals perfectly rendered, and immediately it segued into “San Ber’dino,” and it was ON! Thomas played the harp along with great singing, including the Johnny Guitar Watson ‘flambe vocals’ on this one and “Andy,” such a great tune pairing. And they closed OSFA with the vocal version of “Sofa No. 2.” At which point the band paused briefly, Dweezil noting what had been accomplished.
He then explained that they were about to play one of the hardest tunes in the oeuvre to perform: “Sinister Footwear.” I will say all day — every day — that Frank would have loved playing with this band. They can do anything. And then Dweezil did something I had not seen him do before: he took off his shirt, just like daddy! In fairness, it was hot as blazes on stage.
They played “Cosmik Debris” a bit later, but I reached nirvana the minute they whipped out brilliant vocals on “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” Thomas was playing a slide whistle, and Dweezil did some of the famous band conducting made famous by Frank, especially with Kurt Morgan on bass and Thomas. Then that incredible opening announced “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.”
Next, Dweezil, talked about favorite albums, speaking lovingly of The Grand Wazoo. The title track followed, with Thomas on trumpet and Gonzalez on alto sax. Dweezil took a short solo, as Gonzalez switched to flute for the ensemble work. Then she grabbed her alto and played a show-stopping solo. She is a magnificent talent, but this was over-the-top superb. Not to mention that she danced her ass off the entire show!
While the vamp continued , Dweezil started calling out time signatures for band members: Morgan in 7, drummer Ryan Brown in 15, and Gonzalez in 4. Then he switched Brown to 21. It was deluxe… and a tribute to “Toads of the Short Forest.”
I was lamenting before the show that there was no longer a mallets player in the band as a percussionist. Not to worry. Norton and Gonzalez cover those sounds beautifully with their various synthesizers. It added such great color to many songs.
Then it was time for “Cosmik Debris,” with yet another nice guitar solo. And then… “Zomby Woof.” A word about this song from “Over-Nite Sensation.” Heavy metal got its beginnings before Black Sabbath in 1970, but that is a reasonable starting point. Frank recorded “Zomby Woof” in 1973, and to this day it stands as one of the greatest heavy metal tracks of all time (perhaps you should listen to it again). And this genre is squarely in Dweezil’s wheelhouse (so is everything else). He and the band CRUSHED this.
Dweezil talked about other favorite albums of his, the introduction to “Apostrophe.” I confess at the begin I was thinking “meh.” I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. On the original album, Frank does the power trio thing with Jack Bruce and Jim Gordon. Brown propelled this one, and Morgan owned it. Owned it. Huge. Then Dweezil blasted into outer space some place.
Dweezil then mentioned the movie Baby Snakes, which came out when he was “six or seven.” For a child that age, it was a cool title, he said. The band played and sang a super version of the title track, and that segued into another movie tune, “Magic Fingers” from 200 Motels. Another Dweezil solo!
And then “Montana!” It was a wonderful version. Near the end, I noticed that Thomas was singing “Goin’ to Montana soon” but not the required “Yippy-Ty-O-Ty-Ay!” But then I realized that the entire crowd was doing the “Yippy” part! Thomas then encouraged everyone to sing with him. It didn’t take long for his vocals to turn into vocalese, harder and harder to follow as he improvised. Then Dweezil played the audience. It was deluxe.
Band introductions. Scheila pointing and saying: “And Dweezil Zappa!” More tears.
The show had run two hours and ten minutes. Encore? Heck, yeah!
Thomas mentioned something about needing a dancing tune. “Anybody ready to dance? It looks like you are!” A joyful version of “Dancing Fool” followed, Thomas perfect on the vocals, guessing that the camerawoman was Jewish (no), Italian (yes), at which point he said, “Batting .500!” That led directly to “I’m the Slime,” sounding as gross and perverted as it should have, with a nice solo from Dweezil.
Then Dweezil bent a whole bunch of strings, the intro to the outro, “Muffin Man.” IT. WAS. HUGE.
Brilliant. Stunning. Wonderful. Better than ever.
As Donna and I walked out of Jannus Live, we had to pass by the Ringside Cafe. I had looked earlier but did not recognize the name of the performer. Didn’t matter; it was the wrong name. I heard an unmistakable guitar voice and ducked my head it. Bobby Lee Rodgers and his trio! Let me tell you what I said later to Bobby Lee: there is no other music I would have stopped for after the Zappa Plays Zappa show.
Bobby Lee Rodgers is one of the greatest and most underrated players on the planet. Period. He was joined by constant compatriot Tom Damon on drums, a true powerhouse, and Brian Tate on bass. I had never seen Tate before. He was amazing. I am convinced that BLR has a cabinet someplace full of bass players, and every one of them is a monster. BLR swears Tate is the best upright player he has ever heard, and he’s heard LOTS.
The trio was just wrapping up a song as we sat down. I was hoping Donna wouldn’t mind hanging out for a bit. I was delighted to discover she was as enamored as I am. The band blew up BLR’s signature tune, “Outer Space,” which lasted more than 20 minutes. Everybody got a chance to blow, and BLR just killed it. Next up was a 13-minute take on “Ike Stubblefield,” written about the brilliant Georgia keyboard player. And the first set closed with a long, brooding version of “Overdrive.”
What a magnificent way to end the evening. In order to make it a completely perfect music day — for me — I listened to two albums of wonderful funky retro soul on the way over and back, Beyond the Sun by Orgōne and In Your Brain by Monophonics. With a cherry on top.
What are the chances I will drive to Orlando as soon as I post this review to see Zappa Plays Zappa again? If you guessed 100%, you win the prize.
[ZPZ: Star Wars Theme > Inca Roads, Can’t Afford No Shoes, Sofa No. 1 > Po-Jama People, Florentine Pogen, Evelyn, A Modified Dog > San Ber’dino > Andy, Sofa No. 2, Sinister Footwear, What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? > My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama, The Grand Wazoo, Cosmic Debris, Zomby Woof, Apostrophe, Baby Snakes > Magic Fingers, Montana; E: Dancing Fool > I’m the Slime > Muffin Man]
One Size Fits All played in its entirety in order
[BLR Set 1: ? > Outer Space > Ike Stubblefield > Overdrive]
I had decided beforehand that I would go to Orlando to see Zappa Plays Zappa back-to-back nights. The Plaza Live is an entirely different setup and vibe than Jannus Live. Whereas Jannus is a long, narrow, outdoor venue, the Plaza is short, wide and indoors. That was a good thing Saturday, as the weather was ugly most of the day.
You can hear more clearly at the Plaza and see much better. Extra benefits include nobody smoking and the talkers out in the lobby. If we were to compare and contrast the two shows, the setlist only differed by two songs, but the order of tunes beyond the nine songs from One Size Fits All varied, and there was a little less banter from Dweezil Zappa, but overall it showed the remarkable consistency and musical excellence of this amazing sextet.
Also, because I was much closer in Orlando vs. St. Pete, there were stage goings-on I was able to appreciate much more clearly. For instance, I did not rave nearly enough about Chris Norton, the superb keyboard player also responsible for much of the falsetto singing (along with Scheila Gonzalez). After the Star Wars intro, the band tackled One Size Fits All in order again, beginning with “Inca Roads.” The interplay between Norton’s synthesizer and Gonzalez’s flute was sublime, as was Dweezil’s first of many killer solos.
“Can’t Afford No Shoes” was again a tightly compacted joyous romp, followed by the stately “Sofa No. 1,” Norton’s piano out front. As the band blasted “Po-Jama People” again, I realized that much of the tune is also piano-driven, with Dweezil laying out except for a few brief flurries before his bluesy solo. “Florentine Pogen” was a true gem.
Once OSFA was complete, with Dweezil’s acknowledgment, he then asked this question: “How many of you are hearing this music for the first time?” A number of hands slowly rose. He assuaged them and others reluctant to raise theirs this way:
“We don’t want you to feel like you’re not part of the team. We want to ADD you to the team!” Huge roar of approval.
With that, he talked about favorite albums, leading into “The Grand Wazoo.” Dweezil was playing through that Leslie-like effect that Frank used on the original recording, and it was deluxe. Gonzalez again blew her saxophone brains out with another brilliant solo, and then Dweezil did band directing again, pointing variously to band members to speed up, slow down, play louder, play softer, lay out. Everyone was smiling. There was a great exchange between Ben Thomas and Gonzalez on vocal sounds, and Dweezil took another great solo.
“Having fun so far?” he asked. “We haven’t played this in a while. This should be fun!” That was the intro to “Stinkfoot,” with Thomas absolutely channeling Frank’s vocals leading up to “the occasional python boot.” Dweezil ripped a mighty guitar break, and the song suddenly morphed into “Magic Fingers,” with the long coda, everyone contributing on vocals (Gonzalez got the “nearly stark raving NUDE!” line).
Next up was another spot-on take of “Sinister Footwear.” Dweezil’s guitar sounded like a violin, and the tune had a distinct Middle Eastern vibe. It segued into “Montana,” smiles all around. Another superb Dweezil romp led to Thomas playing the audience, getting everyone to sing the “Yippy-Ty-O-Ty-Ay” refrain again.
“Baby Snakes” featured killer falsetto vocals again from Norton and Gonzalez, and then another song not on the Friday setlist: “I’m So Cute.” Norton’s manic delivery was a match for the Terry Bozzio original.
Suddenly, the stage emptied out, leaving Dweezil with Kurt Morgan and Ryan Brown. Brown offered a two-minute hurricane of drums before Morgan strode in on bass again, another stunning take on “Apostrophe.” He and Dweezil were superb, and Brown got a second romp on the kit. Smiling as they finished, Dweezil explained, “That’s old-school power trio. Sometimes it just comes down to three!” More raucous approval.
Out came “Cosmik Debris” to the delight of the many who knew the lyrics and helped out. And when Thomas got to “The price of meat has just gone up, and WHAT?” he held the microphone out to the audience, as we shouted “YOUR OLD LADY HAS JUST GONE DOWN!” “Behave!” he laughed.
Waves. Bows. Thanks. Off stage. Yes, of course they’re coming back!
Smiling back on stage, Dweezil said, “Here’s one you might know.” Yes! Another heavy-metal stomp through “Zomby Woof,” with Morgan and Brown again thrashing away, Thomas “just about as evil as a man can be.” And from there, it was again “Dancing Fool > I’m the Slime > Muffin Man.” A glorious, seven-minute explosion of “Muffin Man,” closing the 25-minute encore. Another two-and-a-half hour monster set!
And Dweezil mentioned again this night they would clean up and come out to sign autographs and merch.
I had the drive back to Tampa staring me in the face, but the allure of Future Vintage bringing jamtronic magic to the wonderful Red Lion Pub in Winter Park was just too strong. I only caught the last hour of their show, but it confirmed what I wanted to see (on this, my 19th show): Eric Layana on drums as the perfect companion to Matt Giancola on a LOT of keyboards and toys and Trevor McDannel on bass and synth pad.
Layana also plays drums for the excellent Currentz band from Dunedin, but he is all in on the Future Vintage thing. That is important. Neither of the two drummers who had been with the band previously could make the commitment (this is called life, folks). Layana is all in, which is a very good thing. It is now a true trio, not a duo with drummer. And Layana’s organic, powerhouse style is a prefect complement to the jamtronic duo, really upping the intensity.
As the trio moved into a very spacy, funky tune (which describes many of their songs), Anna, the band’s photographer, videographer and taper (not to mention Matt’s wife), leaned over and said, “This is my new favorite tune.” I would have to agree. It doesn’t even have a working title yet!
Then the band asked me to call a tune. Something Herbie, I replied. Giancola and I (and many others) are huge admirers of Herbie Hancock. What we got was by far the best version of “Doin’ It Right” I’ve heard, with lots of Herbie electric piano to keep me rapt. Another great night out hearing music on the I-4 corridor here in Florida. There is so much talent from coast to coast.
Keeping with the musical theme, the drive over and drive back were accompanied by the brand new TAUK double-live album Headroom. You need it. Just sayin’…
“I love music, any kind of music.
I love music, just as long as it’s groovin’…” (Gamble & Huff, 1975)
[ZPZ: Star Wars Theme > Inca Roads, Can’t Afford No Shoes, Sofa No. 1 > Po-Jama People, Florentine Pogen > Evelyn, A Modified Dog > San Ber’dino > Andy, Sofa No. 2, The Grand Wazoo, Stinkfoot > Magic Fingers, Sinister Footwear > Montana, Baby Snakes > I’m So Cute, Apostrophe, Cosmic Debris; E: Zomby Woof, Dancing Fool > I’m the Slime > Muffin Man]
[FV: That Nasty Spot, Sugar Rock, Zombie Killer, Feels So Good, Urban Theme/Sumthin Sumthin, Jibe 2, Intro Jam, Duke Meets the Booty, Planet Home, PHB Opener, NUDT, Doin’ It Right]