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The Brighton Dome 1 December 2011

Zappa Plays Zappa

While this wasn't 'Boulez Conducts Zappa' or indeed 'Jean Luc Ponty Plays Zappa' there were times when Zappa Plays Zappa felt like a classical concert as an incredibly skilled band set about interpreting the music of Dweezil's dad Frank Zappa. But just like the football cliché, tonight was a game (or concert) of two halves, literally.

The first set included the whole of the 'Apostrophe' album, while the second set proved to be a stunning confirmation of just why this show is much more than a mere tribute band.

In short the thrilling playing, the warped humour and the clever use of a big screen with bursts of Frank playing at the height of his powers, proved to be the perfect vehicle for keeping alive Frank's musical legacy.

In so many ways this was a step back in time, from the local pubs full of music fans, to the plumes of smoke in the street and the pre-gig collective sense of anticipation.

Then there was the army of eccentric Zappa fans out in their colourful regalia, embracing a demographic spread that spanned hippies, punks, leather jackets, women (!) and the more demurely dressed white collar professionals

Prior to the show there was an unexpected significant moment at the soundcheck/VIP 'meet and greet' session, as the band members stopped playing and turned to look at Frank on the big screen as if in awe of their guiding mentor. In fact they were checking for a glitch in the projector, but the moment acted as a reminder of the all pervasive influence of Frank that anchors both this project and generations of fans.

Zappa Plays Zappa

Structurally ZPZ topped and tailed things as per Frank's early 80's shows, limbering up with the instrumental 'Heavy Duty Judy' and climaxing on 'Muffin Man' with the final stellar solo left to Frank on the big screen.

In between the band made a good fist of playing the whole of 'Apostrophe', not an easy task given the mix of 70's humour and lightning riffs. Vocalist Ben Thomas worked hard on his intonation, but at times he lacked Frank's European sense of irony in his delivery.

But the band pressed on with Scheila Gonzales doubling impressively on sax and keyboards and a vocal duet with Ben on 'St Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast', with blistering vibes form Billy Hulting. 'Cosmic Debris' featured a lilting bluesy solo from Dweezil as Frank appeared in triptych on the screen above.

Dweezil further explored some interesting tones on 'Excentrifugal Forz', and Scheila added a great top line and backing vocals on 'Uncle Remus' as Dweezil was a picture concentration as he soloed fluently.

In sharp contrast to his late dad, Dweezil cut a laid back figure who lets the music flow through him. Occasionally he'd slip into a defining solo but often appeared seemingly lost in his own blissful karma as the band brought Frank's music to life as authentically as possible.

Bass player Peter Griffin added a stunning lead bass line on the 'Apostrophe' title track, and the band pursued a faithful early arrangement of 'Stinkfoot', eschewing Frank's later bluesy interpretation.

So far so good, but the evening really kicked with a reggae version of 'Pick Me I'm Clean' and a startling rendition of the stop-start and zany time changes of 'Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?' with the crowd adding some spontaneous responses in the song's pregnant pauses.

Scheila and Ben added brusque sax and trumpet parts before the number segued into a cool vibes solo and spine tingling guitar from Dweezil.

Zappa Plays Zappa

In many respects the intermission came too soon, but 'Black Napkins' restored the musical intensity, with Frank in a red jump suit on the big screen taking the lead as Dweezil gazed dreamily into the upstairs balcony.

It was the moment when you realised the band was paying their homage to Frank, but they redressed the balance on the brilliant 'Cheepnis', with Ben Thomas providing his best vocal of the night as drummer Joe Travers added a mock commentary rap, and Dweezil again soloed mellifluously. The crowd responded in kind, giving the band their best reception so far.

Scheila switched to flute on the instrumental 'Peaches En Regalia' before another vocal duet with Ben on the superb 'Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy', as Dweezil found a rich warm tone on the concluding solo. There was a thoughtful Doo-wop intro on 'What's The Ugliest Part of Your Body', before the coolest groove of the night with a funky keyboard line and scintillating guitar.

And still it got better with motif from 'Chunga's Revenge' and an impromptu hip-hop rap from Ben. Dweezil dipped into the 'Variation on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression' in the middle of 'City of Tiny Lights' and Scheila produced some incredible sounds as part of a honking sax solo before duelling with Dweezil.

Perhaps only Frank's all pervasive sense of the ridiculous could have topped that moment. As it was, he surely have would have smiled as the lunatics all but took over the asylum as part of an impromptu dance contest on 'Dancing Fool', with both Ben and Scheila joining the front row freak out to do their thing.

By the time of the closing 'Muffin Man' emotions were running high, and the crowd generated the kind of volume that we all took for granted all those years ago.

In sum, Zappa Plays Zappa wasn't so much a collective flashback as a brilliant on going musical celebration of Frank's enduring 80 album legacy.

Review by Pete Feenstra

Photo by Stu Day

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