On a night dedicated to his father's music, Dweezil neglected himself.
Saturday night, Dweezil Zappa brought the act formerly known as Zappa Plays Zappa to Tipitina’s. This time, it was titled “Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants” since his younger brother and sister Ahmet and Diva, as custodians of the Zappa Family Trust, wanted to charge him to continue to use the old name. Still, it was a night of Frank Zappa’s uniquely American prog rock that had no time for elven folk and their magic Mellotrons.
Today, it seems odd to find an audience enthusiastic for a whole night of Zappa music because it’s so specific that it’s hard to imagine a roomful of people in any city in America who want to go see it live. It doesn’t sound contemporary now as the songs are littered with a thousand dated references and attitudes, but listen to any of his albums next to others released the same year and those didn’t sound contemporary then either. The one constant in his world was an antipathy for conformity that left Zappa almost allergic to doing anything that anyone else would do.
Saturday night’s show started with a suite from Zappa’s debut album, Freak Out, which is now 50 years old. Dweezil wondered what it must have been like for a 11 year-old to take his paper route money to the store, buy Freak Out, and hear “We Are the Brain Police,” but what older listeners did with it in clubs is an equally good question. Freak Out remains challenging, but the live performance and the good-natured energy of the band offered the audience a way in. In the first years of Zappa Plays Zappa, alumni from Frank’s bands performed with Dweezil, but the younger, veteran-free band had a more organic bond onstage. With six vocalists—Dweezil being the most limited—they could do Frank’s love of vocals justice, even when they sang deliberately flat, discordant notes on Freak Out’s “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Dweezil has made an effort on these tours to honor the breadth of Zappa’s catalogue, and Saturday night spent a lot of time on Freak Out, Joe’s Garage, and 1981’s You Are What You Is, but he spent time in the crowd-pleasing ‘70s as well, performing “Montana,” a very heavy “Apostrophe,” “Cozmik Debris” (with tour manager and Tipitina’s employee Pete Jones on lead vocals) and “Muffin Man” to end the show.
The crowd was into all of it, but not surprisingly, the guitar freak outs were what people came to see, and Dweezil didn’t disappoint. He was a stellar guitarist before he started Zappa Plays Zappa, but to be able to honor his father’s guitar playing, he learned the system Frank employed when soloing, and while doesn’t play his solos note for note, the principles that govern the way Frank improvised directed Dweezil’s solos.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand why Dweezil would go through the work and take on the fight with his family to continue the project. Zappa was famously a workaholic, so he was likely a hard dad to really know. Walking in his musical shoes and dealing with his musical decisions has to help Dweezil understand Frank better. There has to be something powerful in it for Dweezil because the family feud continues. He announced during the show that the Zappa Family Trust is trying to trademark the “Zappa” name and prevent Dweezil from performing under his own last name.
At the same time, the soft spot in the concept is the challenge of stepping into Frank’s shoes. With Frank, every 132nd note played in 9/4 time came with a side of superiority, and while Dweezil’s a remarkable guitar player himself, he carries himself unassumingly, almost to a fault. He may be the front man and band leader, but more than anything else, he’s leading an admiration party for Frank, and that puts him in an awkward spot.
Frank’s sense of humor and satire was very personal, far better at pointing out what people do wrong than hint at what they ought to do right instead--and sometimes, what they did wrong wasn't obvious. Saturday night, Dweezil played “Yo Mama” from 1981’s Sheik Yerbouti, and its lyrics seem even meaner detached from Zappa’s persona and charisma (when, in this case, they merely seemed mean):
Maybe you should stay with yo' mama
She could do your laundry 'n' cook for you
Maybe you should stay with yo' mama
You're really kinda stupid 'n' ugly too
Dweezil never acknowledged that persnickety sense of humor, instead treating the songs simply as neutral compositions. “Teen-Age Wind” rips on teenagers who want to be free so that they can see The Grateful Dead, and Dweezil introduced it simply and without a hint of irony by saying, “Here’s a fun one.” The set detoured into material from the 200 Motels soundtrack which focus on groupies and their behavior. He might have talked about whether groupies are a thing or not in 2016 or contextualized Frank’s sexual politics, but instead, Dweezil announced that these were songs the band loved to play.
At the end of the week that saw the election of Donald Trump, I wondered what Frank thought of America’s President-Elect. Trump emerged as a New York City playboy before Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1990, and he seems like someone Frank would have said something withering about. If he did, Dweezil kept it to himself as he played a show that could have been performed last month, last year, a decade ago or longer than that. That level of remove from the material effectively put Dweezil in the audience with us admiring Frank’s material. He owned the show musically and hosted the night affably, but Frank’s absence was at the evening’s core.