Event Review: Zappa Plays Zappa – Roxy & Elsewhere @ The Bridgewater Hall

Posted by Michael 26th December 2013

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A few weeks ago our very own Emma Louise Madden went along to Zappa Plays Zappa – Roxy & Elsewhere @ The Bridgewater Hall. Here’s what she thought…..

When most folks talk about growing up and the Frank their fathers loved, the one that invaded their young lives and living room speakers, they’re generally referring to Sinatra – he of swing, Rat Pack and womanising fame. Not so my household. Nope, the soundtrack to my childhood was the genre-bending, ear-challenging and criminally, obscenely talented Mr Zappa. My father could reel off a million and one facts about the man and his music at any given moment, and considering the musical genius’s life was cut tragically short, Pops has never managed to realise his dream of seeing the man live. When Twitter blessed me with the Bridgewater Hall’s announcement of tickets to see heir to Zappa’s music Dweezil (his eldest son who has dedicated his life to playing his father’s tunes) and his band, I snagged a pair of front-seaters faster than you can say ‘A Penguin in Bondage’.

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Debuting in 2006 on ‘Tour de Frank’, Zappa Plays Zappa was founded as a tribute from father to son by Dweezil and the associated Zappa Family Trust. During the interval I noted to my father how very young the band he brought to Manchester appeared, and having since done my research it turns out that Dweezil had always assembled a group of young musicians for the purposes of bringing his father’s music to a younger audience. I distinctly remember when watching a documentary about the children of rock stars that when the four Zappa kids were recounting fond memories of their father, it was Dweezil that got the most visibly emotional. Both his admiration for his father’s talents (which he grew into – when talking about growing up in the Zappa household during the show, he outs himself as a teenage Eddie Van Halen obsessive) and the labour of love that the ZPZ project obviously is, are apparent in the fact that not only did Dweezil share many an onstage anecdote about his father, but also that this isn’t just any music. You have to be an exceptional artist to play such complex tunes, and Zappa Sr famously ran a tight ship. Musos over the world know the notorious story of John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame studying Zappa’s music for hours, aged eleven, then turning down his opportunity to audition for Zappa’s band as Frank prohibited illegal drug use in his ranks.

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Zappa’s tunes aren’t for everyone, but they should be. Like jazz, it’s a divider and strange-sounding at first, but unlike jazz, once you scratch past the surface of ‘challenging’ and ‘wait a minute, those notes shouldn’t go together’, its wry sense of humour and sense of silliness in addition to its rule-breaking rebelliousness make for an unusually entertaining experience. During the show Dweezil announced, “There is still nothing else around that sounds like this music, so I believe that this music is from the future.” I found myself feeling quite emotional as the band took to the stage, not only knowing what the experience meant for my father but how serious musicians dream of an opportunity to play such technically challenging music. (If you want an easy introduction to how fun a Zappa album can be, have a listen to Weird Al’s ‘Genius in France’ which Dweezil actually plays on – it’s a stunningly accurate homage to the way in which Zappa studied and appreciated the genres he played around with.)

 

The entire band contributed to vocals at some stage; as my father noted, singing is second nature to musicians of this calibre. The group comprises Dweezil himself taking on his father’s trickiest guitar licks, Scheila Gonzalez on saxophone, flute, keyboards, harmonica and throwing herself around the stage in impressive fashion (her performance during the rarely-heard ‘I Come From Nowhere’ is nothing short of incredible), Ryan Brown on drums and percussion, originally-Mancunian Ben Thomas with delightfully uncanny Frank-esque lead vocals as well as trumpet, trombone and rhythm guitar, Chris Norton looking dashing in a black trilby with a fuschia feather operating keyboards and violin, and wiry and energetic Kurt Morgan on bass. I didn’t realise until two thirds of the way through the performance that the band wear a uniform of sorts, all in black t-shirts with jeans, and yet this further helps you focus upon their individual personalities and talents shining through.

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Above all, the show was touching, and often hilarious. The audience was a mix of ages, genders and backgrounds appreciative of both Frank and his son (several Wayne’s World-esque “we’re not worthy!”s took place on the front row), and when onstage participation is requested by Dweezil for ‘Be-Bop Tango’, many were keen to raise their hand. I won’t spoil what happens during that performance, but I will say that Dweezil has a trick or two up his sleeve. The show focuses around Zappa and the Mothers’ live ‘Roxy and Elsewhere album’, playing it in its entirety but also bringing in a few surprises and treats for ardent fans and newcomers.

 

Dweezil and the ZPZ band are continuing their Roxy and Elsewhere tour across America and Canada. If you find yourself in that neck of the woods or when they return to the UK for their next tour, I implore you to see them. It’s a treat for any appreciator of music, live performance, and damn fine humour.

 

Written By Emma Louise Madden  @EmLoodle