As tribute tours go, "Zappa Plays Zappa" is a cut above the rest.
For one thing, 37-year-old guitarist Dweezil Zappa is an accomplished
musician in his own right, and he can hardly be accused of cashing in on his
father's legacy: Frank Zappa's catalog is so diverse and complex, any
musician capable of performing the music has every right to do it. What's
more, Dweezil has conceived the show as a way of illustrating different
aspects of that legacy each year, many of which fans never had a chance to
I spoke with Dweezil shortly before the start of the second tour, which
comes to Chicago tonight with musicians Aaron Arntz, Scheila Gonzalez, Pete
Griffin, Billy Hulting, Jamie Kime, Joe Travers and special guest vocalist
and Frank Zappa veteran Ray White.
Q. How did "Zappa Plays Zappa" start?
A. Well, I thought about doing it for a long time, but it's such a
daunting task: It was always, "Where to begin?" When I finally made the
commitment, I knew that I needed a lot of prep time before I was even going
to put a band together. I took two years to study the music, and the very
first thing I did was listen to every single one of Frank's records in
chronological order -- and that's no small task, because there's about 80 of
them! I made a bunch of notes, and the whole concept was to see the
evolution of his music -- to see the arc throughout his entire career. When
you really look at what he did as a life's work, it's insane.
Q. You could do 20 "Zappa Plays Zappa" tours and highlight
different aspects of his music every year.
A. That's the thing. So I started with the notion that this could
be an ongoing thing, annually or bi-annually, and it's really just a big
thank you to the longtime fans, as well as a chance for a newer audience to
be developed. The timing has never really been better, in terms of trying to
really show the difference between what Frank was about and what the
traditional popular music scene is about. Frank always maintained his
integrity, and he traveled his own path that virtually no one followed.
There is stuff that he recorded 40 years ago that is still as shocking,
provocative and contemporary as anything now.
Q. Do you worry about people saying you're living in your
A. I never look at it that way, mainly because I have so much
respect for him that I'm not in a competition. I just love the music, and
I'm presenting it in a way that is as authentic as can be without him being
here. This year, we actually have performances on video where he's going to
be singing and playing with us [on video], so it's kind of surreal. But the
fact that I can play the stuff -- it doesn't matter what my last name is.
The music can work with anybody who has the skill to do the role that is
Q. How would you compare the song selection from last year to
A. Last year, I focused heavily on stuff from the middle '70s,
because it was generally regarded as a very popular period across the board
for the fan base. It's also my favorite period from growing up, with records
like "Apostrophe (')" and "Over-Nite Sensation." This year, I decided to
focus more on some of the stuff that Frank was up to in the very beginning
of his career. There is some wild stuff he did in the studio that was never
recreated on the stage at any point, because he didn't have the
instrumentation to do it with bands at the time. So there will be stuff from
the Mothers of Invention, but we'll also get into the later '70s and early
We have a lot on our plate; last year, we would play for 3 1/2 hours
without any breaks. There is a lot of difficult stuff to remember and
execute -- it's very much like Cirque du Soleil in a way, because of the
extreme nature of the concentration. You really have to be on the top of
your game to do this; you can't just be phoning it in.
Check out 'Garage' for Zappa starter
With dozens of albums to choose from, new initiates to the difficult but
rewarding music of Frank Zappa face a daunting challenge just figuring out
where to start.
"Part of what this tour does is give people the opportunity to jump in
and get a quick education, and from that point, they can take it from
whatever direction they want to go," Dweezil Zappa says. "Usually, when
people ask me, 'Well, where do I start?,' I tell them 'Apostrophe ('),'
'Over-Nite Sensation,' 'Freak Out!' and 'Joe's Garage.' "
I couldn't agree more with Dweezil about the latter choice. Originally
issued on two separate albums, the 1979 rock opera "Joe's Garage" tells the
story of a garage band (much like the one Frank led at the start of his
career) that experiences the highs and lows of the music business, with Ike
Willis giving voice to Joe and Zappa narrating the story and playing "the
Central Scrutinizer," a governmental Big Brother disapproving of the freedom
and liberation inherent in the best rock 'n' roll (oddly foreshadowing the
controversy Zappa would soon experience in the '80s at the hands of the
censorious Parents Music Resource Center).
Although there are still wild tangents both musical and lyrical, "Joe's
Garage" is one of the most melodic, least confusing and most accessible
Zappa albums, and probably the best introduction for anyone who's always
wondered what the fuss is about.