On the strength of a recommendation from Brian (and lots of latent worship from McJimbo) I bought a ticket to the Zappa Plays Zappa gig at the Albert Hall on Friday night. Bloody glad I did too – what a great gig !
The tone of the evening I think was set by the second thing that happened (the first being that the tube network was stuffed so cabs were the mode du jour) – as we made our way around to Door 1, there was this old bloke standing around with his posse in front of the steps. I briefly considered asking him to move, before being a little dumbstruck that it was Robert Plant. I love this city.
ANYWAY, the gig was the brainchild of Dweezil Zappa, and the idea was for he and his band to crank out a selection of Frank's music, and generally remember and celebrate the dude. I was a little wary, cos I only really knew one Zappa song, and the rest was reputation & enthusiasm. I was a little trepidatious when the lights went down and the video footage started – an extended live recording of Frank & band playing “Montana”. As it rolled into its 11th or so minute, I apprehensively thought, “I'm at the most expensive video night in history”.
As soon as the band hit the stage however, things got weird and excellent. I kept looking at Dweezil – for the lighting plot served to highlight him – and thinking “Well you're not bad, but you're not all you think you are”… however as a whole unit the band was sublime. In the first half when the sounds of arctic winds blew from the speakers and the band started playing “Don't Eat The Yellow Snow” and “St Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast” suddenly all seemed right – it gave me a bit of context and I happily waded in to my depth & enjoyed it, before pushing out further with the tunes following. I kinda liked the way they'd rigged the lighting trusses up into the shape of a giant letter Z, looming ominously over the stage as an ever present reminder of what you were watching. Would've made Zorro bloody jealous.
The singing was all taken care of in Frank's absence by a member of his original lineup, Napoleon Murphy-Brock. And a fine job he did too. Thankfully Dweezil knew that it wasn't his job to emulate his Dad in this part; he stuck instead to guitar shredding solos, at which he was definitely adept.
I'm not sure which song it was, but at one point the keyboard player leapt out from behind his instrument, ran up the stage, up the stairs on side of stage, and across the organ balcony. I was thinking “OK, this is some quirky thing where the keyboard player does laps of the structure or something”, however I was surprised when he sat down at the pipe organ and started playing – that was a definite curveball, and worked beautifully.
In the second half, Dweezil invited out a special guest guitarist, in the form of Steve Vai. I'd only ever heard Spiro & Orge speak of his talents, however once again I was amazed – that guy can shred ! Dweezil & Vai duetted on The Black Page #2 (an extraordinarily complex song so named because when written out in sheet music there's barely a square millimetre of space where there isn't a note written) to devastating effect, and the crowd accordingly went apeshit.
At one point (and again, I've got no idea what the song was), they flew the screen in and there was a huge projection of Frank playing a solo, which the rest of the band accompanied, so it was probably the closest thing to seeing Frank live we're ever gonna get.
Frank Zappa was banned from performing in the Royal Albert Hall in 1971, and this gig was a fitting homecoming.