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There have been numerous Frank Zappa tribute bands since the legendary rock guitarist/composer/performer died of cancer just ahead of his 53rd birthday in 1993, but none remotely like the one fronted by Dweezil Zappa.


Frank’s eldest son is the one fan most capable of approximating his father’s enormously rich and complex music—though somewhat surprisingly, Dweezil’s “Zappa Plays Zappa” concerts, which were inaugurated last year with a star-studded tour and reprised this year with an even more remarkable young band, required an extraordinary learning period for both Dweezil and the amazing musicians he has assembled to honor and perpetuate his father’s work.


“We worked hard to learn the stuff, and we have so many more things we plan on learning,” says Dweezil, who ran his band ragged mastering 40 of his father’s songs for the first tour, then another 40 for the current one (which heads to Japan in January following Australian dates in December). “Now that we’ve started the ball rolling we have to keep finding opportunities to keep playing.”

The big hurdle was getting the rabid Frank Zappa fan base out for the first tour, so Dweezil stacked the deck with some of Frank’s most esteemed stalwarts including guitarist Steve Vai, drummer Terry Bozzio and vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock. The format proved so successful that this year only vocalist/guitarist Ray White, who toured and recorded with Frank Zappa during the late 1970s/early `80s “Zappa in New York”/“Tinsel Town Rebellion”/“You Are What You Is” album period, joined last year’s equally stellar youngsters Joe Travers (drums), Billy Hulting (percussion), Scheila Gonzalez (keyboards, saxophone, vocals), Aaron Arntz (keyboards/trumpet), Peter Griffin (bass), and Jaime Kime (rhythm guitar). Even diehard Frank fans felt that these shows miraculously topped the first tour’s.


“It’s what I always expected,” Dweezil claims, “once we got to do the shows the way I really wanted to—without having to make them into a circus with all the special guests.” The only problem now, he adds, is taking time off.


“It’s really hard to learn the stuff and keep it in your head,” he continues, “so if you take a long time away, the musicians take on other things and it’s much harder to retrain yourself. Every time you go through the learning process on new material, it’s very exhausting and time-consuming: The first couple weeks, I feel that we’ll never get there.”

Indeed, the prolific and prodigiously talented Frank Zappa recorded over 80 albums ranging from 1950s-styled rock ‘n roll, to heavily orchestrated guitar rock, to novelty hits like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “Valley Girl”, and even classical music inspired by the likes of Stravinsky and Stockhausen. His range is so broad and complex that finding musicians capable of tackling it, obviously, was truly daunting.


“The auditions were designed to eliminate the guesswork whether they could do it,” says Dweezil. “For instance, Aaron [Arntz] had to transcribe ‘The Black Page’ and ‘Inca Roads’ and play with just a drummer—but he only had two days to learn them! Instead of giving him music and having him sight-read, we wanted to see how good an ear he had—and how much dedication, which really sets the tone. He was the only one who got through both--and very accurately—so he’s a perfect technician and also very youthful with a fun experimental side, which is also what we want in the band: We want a younger audience to find this music, and it’s important that they see younger people involved in performing it, so it feels contemporary to them.”


Noting that Arntz is 24, Dweezil, who is 38, adds that it is hard to find such young players “with the background to play all Frank’s music in an authentic way.” But Dweezil himself didn’t come to his role as guardian of his father’s legacy easily.


“I always appreciated his music from a technical standpoint and liked listening to it,” says Dweezil, whose own guitar heroes skewed more toward Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix and especially Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen--who both gave him lessons. “But in terms of learning to play it accurately, that was like a mission. People don’t understand how complicated and challenging it is! I was only ready to study it four years ago, and spent eight hours a day practicing it over several years.”

He began with “hallmark” Frank pieces “because I knew if I could play something like ‘The Black Page,’ I would have the confidence to move on to other things.” After putting the band together, he then led them through every Frank recording in chronological order “so we could hear the evolution and decide what to focus on in his music.”


Here Dweezil notes that in addition to the more melodic and familiar fare like “Peaches in Regalia,” he and the band have also included material that Frank rarely or never played on stage, like “G-Spot Tornado.”


“We’re learning some of the more classical pieces for next year that are more dense and sophisticated and harder to memorize,” says Dweezil. But a big crowd-pleaser has been the projection of archival concert footage of Frank soloing on guitar—with Dweezil’s band backing him up live.


“It’s cool because we’re able to use footage that hasn’t been seen before, like a version of ‘Cosmik Debris’ that’s never been released,” says Dweezil, admitting that the concept might have seemed “cheesy.” “But it’s a very vibrant performance with a great sense of humor, and the fact that we’re physically playing live [with a live recording] makes it feel integrated in a human way.”

Incidentally, Dweezil still wants to finish “What the Hell was I Thinking”—an ambitious album project he started 14 years ago with 40 other widely varying guitarists including Vai, Joe Walsh and AC/DC’s Angus Young. “It’s best described as a 75-minute ‘audio movie’ with different soundscapes,” he explains. “Now that I’ve trained myself to do things I never thought was possible on a guitar, I’ll add new parts.”


Meanwhile, he has just released a “Zappa Plays Zappa” DVD of the first tour, and hopes to put out another one from the current concerts. “The music speaks for itself, but the real situation here is that if Frank’s music is to survive as he wrote and played it, it needs be exposed to people in a way that gets them interested,” Dweezil contends. “But it has to be the way he wrote it and wanted it played--not just somebody else’s idea. It has to accurately represent what it was he was doing, and that’s why the mission is so challenging. It’s not about me playing what he wrote on paper or the way he recorded, but getting people into it, and this is the catalyst for getting new people into his recordings.”


“I just didn’t want to see his music disappear in my lifetime,” he concludes, “but the only way to do it is the respectful way--and that’s what I set out to do. Look on our Web site where people are over the top about it being life-changing and all this crazy stuff--but that’s kind of what we expected, because there’s nothing like Frank’s music and nothing like seeing it played by people who are into playing it the right way. If you compare it to anything else out there in a live situation, it’s totally unique and that’s why people have such a crazy excitement level after seeing it.” / Issue 83 - September 9271
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