Zappa: Urgent Zaniness ...

By Gregory J. Marshall

Down Beat, January 12, 1978

Washington University
St. Louis, Mo.

Personnel: Zappa, guitar, vocals; Adrian Belew, guitar, vocals; Terry Bozzio, drums; Patrick O'Hearn, bass: Peter Wolf, keyboards; Tommy Mars, keyboards; Ed Mann, percussion.

Frank Zappa's first St. Louis appearance in two and a half years could easily have been a disaster: the concert was held in Washington University's open-air quadrangle which is not only known for it's flip-a-coin acoustic consistency but is also subject to nature's whims. The day of the concert was cold, and the area was crowded. When Zappa appeared he seemed genuinely touched that over six thousand showed up under such miserable conditions to hear his music. And despite apparent physical discomfort on his part, and that of his band, FZ complied with about two and a half hours of wall-to-wall music. Surprisingly, the sound was very good with only a little distortion. Unfortunately, area residents two miles away didn't appreciate this or the fact they were hearing Zappa's music free of charge. Tough.

Not including the encore selections, Zappa and cohorts performed a non-stop two-hour "suite" of approximately twenty different compositions (give or take an estranged transitional passage here and there). Like the Uncle Meat album of nearly a decade ago, this concert presented a comprehensive representation of Zappa's multi-talents. This man has so thoroughly absorbed and digested such diverse influences as Stravinsky, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, Varèse and Lenny Bruce that his musical creations cover quite a wide spectrum without sounding thinned out or losing any unique, personal stamp. As a composer he possesses a rich and fertile mind, uncommon for so prolific a writer. As a bandleader he's a master of juxtaposition. For example, the suite he put together progressed at a blistering pace, one piece segueing into the other with verbal fanfare kept at a neat minimum. The set pitted vocals against instrumentals, raunchy rock against flighty jazz, improvisation against orchestration, volume against relative quiet. This plays havoc with the purists but it's a tribute to Zappa's ability as an arranger that he's able to adapt so effectively what is essentially the basic rock group instrumentation to accommodate the varying styles of music he composes. The material he selected covered a ten-year span, representing his latest album (Zoot Allures), some previously unrecorded works and a few classics from days of yore.

It all began with one of those classics, Peaches En Regalia. Like A Pound For A Brown On The Bus/The Legend Of The Golden Arches, Envelopes, Black Page and a couple of others performed during the course of the evening, Peaches is one of those quirky instrumentals full of the odd rhythms and abrupt time changes that Zappa loves to write. Lean on solos but heavy on rich harmonics and striking melodies, these pieces clearly indicated Zappa's interest in contemporary classical music. This is made even more apparent by percussionist Ed Mann, whose vibes and numerous other mallet instruments got a heavy workout on these pieces.

One complaint that has been often directed at Zappa is that his playing was not on a par with his excellent sidemen, and that he had a tendency to solo too often. At this concert Zappa dispelled both criticisms. He took a few solos but they were judiciously placed and always in different contexts. On one piece that may have been Friendly Little Finger (from Zoot Allures) Zappa executed a rampaging solo of almost frightening urgency. In contrast, one of the evening's highlights occurred when Zappa capped off a prolonged encore of Dinah Moe Humm, Camarillo Brillo, and Muffin Man with a sensitive rendering of an instrumental guitar showcase entitled Black Napkins.

Zappa also allowed everybody an opportunity to solo, and they made the most of it. Their primary contributions, however, were their performances as part of the ensemble (this goes for FZ as well). In this regard both bassist Patrick O'Hearn and guitarist Adrian Belew were modestly spectacular. O'Hearn supplied a solid, melodic style (not unlike Tom Fowler) while Belew managed to be assertive and imaginative—within the limited realm of the rhythm guitar—without getting in the way. He also played a lot of lead lines while Zappa sang and vice versa. Belew's voice lent itself well to the lyrics, which occasionally seemed ridiculous but could be tolerated, considering all else. Drummer Terry Bozzio, once the new kid, now finds himself the veteran of the group. He's not afraid to show off his chops, but seldom does so tastelessly. The two keyboardists—Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars—complemented each other very well. Wolf did most of the comping and soloing while Mars provided the synthesized orchestral horn voicings. It's a shame there weren't real horns to help round out the ensemble, and the complex vocal interplay that has marked practically all of Zappa's previous congregations was noticeably absent here. Otherwise, it all went like a dream.

Source: If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)