Like father--Like son

July 20, 2007


  • 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 hear live.

    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 father's shadow?

    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 required.

    Q. How would you compare the song selection from last year to this year?

    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 '80s.

    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.