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Zappa Plays Zappa at The Ridgefield Playhouse November 3, 2013

Sardonic asides

“The excitement of sound check!” Dweezil comments offhandedly into the mic, in a sardonic tone reminiscent of his father’s audience interactions.  Though rarely making eye contact  with us  while  issuing snide asides , one is still convinced that Dweezil provides his input with the expectation of an entertained audience output.

The Zappa Plays Zappa players stroll onto the stage in the most casual fashion. The lineup of the tour is markedly minimal in comparison to the manifold team that most often tags along for a Zappa Plays Zappa tour. Only six musicians signed on to showcase the superhuman compositions of the Roxy & Elsewhere album. Scheila Gonzalez, positioned at the far left of the stage, wields the flute, two pianos, alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, and one powerhouse voice, with various noisemaking devices thrown into the mix for the bizarre background blurts that characterize the erratic mind of Frank Zappa. Ben Thomas stands to her immediate right, towering over the other players with the off-putting garb of a midwest trucker. The illusion of his appearance is shattered once the mastermind entertainer receives his cue, and his lips part in anticipation. The voice that suddenly reverberates through the room slides along the walls and between the floorboards, shattering the seat of many women’s pants in the process.

As a first time ZPZ viewer, I was left to helplessly marvel at the spanking wonders of musicianship before me. The Playhouse inhaled and exhaled as paroxysms of musical complexity billowed out effortlessly from the joyous musicians; the playhouse awakening from the inundating stupor of the tracks with passionate applause at the close of each song. And this is only the sound check.

Dweezil addresses the group, “What specifically does anyone need to run?”

“Measure 43,” Ben Thomas responds with a sarcastic tone and a sepulchral frequency. From the start of the soundcheck, playful banter bounces between the members of the band. Even with the hilarious events of the pre-show experience, audience members still struggled to laugh and pay attention to the comedy act before them. After all, the effect of viking roller-girl Scheila in “Teen-Age Prostitute” cannot be exaggerated. In addition, knowing that Roxy & Elsewhere was to be played in its entirety, I kindled the utmost hope that the original routine during Dummy Up would live on for the fortieth anniversary; sure enough, the assemblage shattered expectations. Each attendee experienced the abdominal workout of a hearty laugh when the college diploma brought onstage for the empty enlightenment of the innocent bystander Ben Thomas read “F.Z.U. – Magna Cum Loudly”.

Rarely swaying from his strict vertical posture, drummer Ryan Brown presented the most featureless expression throughout the sound check. Without the visual indication of his keen sense of humor, Ryan initiated a pointed and complex beat on the drums, Ben soon joining in with temptingly smooth moves. It was not until the main set that Ryan abandoned his stoicism and dove into his playing, making faces and leaning into the drum rolls. It is clear to that these musicians have the most genuine chemistry, revealing in the most selfless way about the terrific talents that they share. Dweezil is the only one throughout the show that seems in the least way absorbed, turning his head away from the crowd. He is probably listening for mistakes, to tell  the others about afterwards. Still, Dweezil addresses the crowd with typically absurd interstitial material in the second set, describing his early fascination with the band Nitro; their many-necked axes and hyena vocals, and his teenage tendency to challenge the construction of his childhood home by cranking “Freight Train” in the dead of night (three in the morning, to be exact). At the end of the rant he apologizes for his pointless divergence; an idiosyncratic mishap that displays a courtesy and lack of self-comfort unknown to Frank.  During the soundcheck, Dweezil referenced his dad rather touchingly, as may have been interpreted by the deprived and depraved audience. The band was unsure of the duration of one note at the end of “The Orchestral Duke of Prunes”; a track omitted from the evening’s set due to the delay of technical difficulties with Chris’ keyboard. Dweezil reflexively suggested to refer to the primary source material, pointing out to the group, “When Frank played it…”; a rather touching sentiment. In the end, the minor dilemma was resolved when the group decided they would have to listen to the record again to be completely settle the perfectionistic dispute.

Kurt Morgan, the bassist of the outfit, betrays the appearance of an aged 90s punk musician with a vast reservoir of musical knowledge. During the sound check, he was quite proud of himself as he recommended that Chris Norton, the keyboardist, play major chords a tritone apart, to resemble Stravinsky’s Petrushka. It is only fitting that Stravinsky is mentioned among the next generation of Zappa players, for the influence of the composer on the classical and spastical Zappa even appears in the lyrical content of a certain provocatively titled track on “Baby Snakes”. Chris is appropriately placed immediately opposite Scheila, also dwarfed by his collection of four keyboards and other electronics. The fedora wearing virtuoso plays the part of the isolated teenager in Teenage Wind, lamenting that he has been left out of the hip experience of attending a Grateful Dead concert. All in all, the group makes for a hilarious audience experience, having perfected the irreverence of the album Roxy & Elsewhere and the timelessly enlivening songs of the second set. The experience of the sound check, coupled with the baffling spectacle of each player’s proficiency, confirms the commitment of the musicians, in character and performance, to reviving the experience of the Zappa stage extravaganza. Each moment boils down to pure joy, reaching a climax when Scheila’s husband James joins Dweezil on the stage to solo back and forth during Zomby Woof. The two guitarists share the most tender smiles with the audience; wide grins more often found in teenager’s garages than titanic rock performances. With the honest and endlessly enthralling performance of the players, and the excitement derived from the unrelenting intricacy of the music, the show earns its place in brain tissue and cardiac muscle alike.


Setlist: (Second set begins after Be-Bop Tango, Muffin Man encore)

  1. Gumbo Variations
  2. Penguin in Bondage
  3. Pygmy Twylyte
  4. Dummy Up
  5. Village of the Sun
  6. Echidna’s Arf (of You)
  7. Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
  8. Cheepnis
  9. Son Of Orange County
  10. More Trouble Everyday
  11. Be-Bop Tango
  12. Torture Never Stops
  13. Teenage Wind – Segue
  14. Teenage Prostitute
  15. Zomby Woof (feat James)
  16. The Black Page #1 (Drum Solo)
  17. The Black Page #2 (Scheila)
  18. Flakes
  19. Broken Hearts Are For Assholes
  20. Wino Man
  21. I Come From Nowhere
  22. Florentine Pogen
  23. Muffin Man

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