Sacramento, California’s Crest Theatre is a beautiful landmark. In its current form the Crest has been around since 1949, but as the Empress Theatre it dates back to 1912. That’s one hundred years of vaudeville, movies, concerts and other stage appearances.
Tonight covers about the last forty-five of those of years for both the artist and me. Dweezil Zappa is on stage playing the music of his father, Frank, and I am sitting in the balcony with my two kids, hanging on every note. Both of my kids are Zappa fans. I might be the only parent in a thousand mile radius who can make that claim, though there are a lot of parents and grandparents here. That’s one of the joys of living in Northern California: A show like Zappa Plays Zappa brings the first generation hippies out of hiding. There are more horseshoe mullets in this theater right now than anywhere else on Earth.
Of course it’s not Dweezil up there alone. Zappa’s music is too complex for that. On stage tonight we have:
- Scheila Gonzalez: Saxphone, Flute, Keyboards & Vocals
- Scott Thunes: Bass
- Billy Hulting: Marimba, Mallets & Percussion
- Jamie Kime: Guitar
- Joe Travers: Drums & Vocals
- Ben Thomas: Vocals
- Chris Norton: Keyboards
- Pete Jones: Vocals on “Bongo Fury”
Young Zappa is up there in his father’s role as band leader and guitarist — no mean feat on either account. Frank Zappa was an outstanding guitarist and the apple did not fall from the tree. Unfortunately this particular apple fell during the shredding Eighties, but his father’s style developed during the Sixties and Seventies. Dweezil is on record saying that he had to essentially relearn the instrument in order to play like his father. And he does. His solo during “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy” earns a much deserved standing ovation. The whole band sounds outstanding, actually.
Zappa Plays Zappa is a curious beast. For all intents and purposes it is a tribute band — not unlike MiniKISS or Def Replica — yet it isn’t. Most rock music is inextricably tied to its artist, sometimes to an absurd extent. I’ve heard Prince complain that he can’t do “Nothing Compares 2 U” because audiences don’t accept it as his song, for example. That makes sense to me. Sinead’s voice is essential to that song now.
But the Zappa universe is much more malleable. The majority of Frank Zappa’s work is more like jazz than rock (and of course he had a nice body of classical work, too, but that’s not relevant tonight), and as such has always been more about the songs than the personalities performing the songs. He always hired the most talented musicians, rehearsed them hard, and as a result they turned out brilliant performances of his compositions. This group is very much in that tradition, and in fact includes Zappa veteran Scott Thunes.
What it really comes down to is that the star in the room is Zappa’s music, and Dweezil and his band treat it with respect but not morose reverence. The tone isn’t that of a stuffy concert hall where we all must sit and listen in quiet awe but rather that of a show, a party, a celebration. On the other hand not a note is out of place, each piece performed as written. There’s nothing “tribute band” about the experience — it’s really much more akin to seeing a symphony performed live and well, but with the added bonus of being allowed to yell “whoo!” and dance.
“Dirty Love” is the highlight of the night. Scheila Gonzalez tears up the vocal and the band is tight and funky. “Willie the Pimp” and “Whipping Most” make for an exceptional end to a great evening.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that unless you’re Australian you are pretty much hosed at this point if you want to see Zappa Plays Zappa this time around. Their last American date is 2/19 at the Canyon Club in Agora Hills, California, and they show up in early April for a four date run in Australia. Dweezil has been touring as Zappa Plays Zappa since 2006, though, so there’s good reason to believe that they’ll be back around.
Here’s the set list for the 2/18/12 Sacramento Zappa Plays Zappa show. It was a great balance of rarities and fan favorites.