Zappa's concerts: a unique experience

By ?

Vidette, October 6, 1978

Chicago Sun-Times

(CHICAGO) โ€“ Frank Zappa: Even the name implies something bizarre and unpredictable. To see him as 3,500 cheering fans here did is to know that the name is no mistake.

Thin and intent with piercing eyes and hawkish proboscis, Zappa resembles a humanoid pterodactyl, swooping down on this audience to intimidate ... and entertain.

This edition of Zappa's yearly Chicago visit was, as usual, intense, quirky and, though seemingly unstructured, orchestrated to the halfnote.[1] That's a large part of the Zappa mystique: his bizarre songs of the behavioral sink seem to wander from one to the other with abandon, while the accompanying doowops, hoots and honks surface on no apparent schedule, but the fact is that every beat is totally, almost frighteningly remediated.

Let's go back in time for a moment, to 1964 when Frank Zappa formed his first band, the Mothers of Invention. Their record becomes a cult hit, but unlike some of the oddments of that proto-weird period (recall Arthur "Fire" Brown and his fire-spitting helmet?)

Zappa had something more going than weirdness, or his elaborate contempt for the "plastic people" or the "brain police." His first album liner quotes modernist composer Edgar Varèse while others are quoting Timothy Leary.

Perhaps that is why, 15 years after entering the music business, Zappa still is recording, still drawing crowds.

These days, his talented, unknown musicians are recruited from college campuses. Gone is some of the L.A. weirdness! No groupie back-up singers, no Flo and Eddie vocal joking, no more strange costumes or fake sexual grappling. But it still is awfully strange and, especially considering that Zappa is no longer alone in his mission of fusing rock with jazz with modern composition, it still sounds awfully good.

Often, the fusion is almost sequential โ€“ a '50s rock motif followed by a jazz interlude and a sudden burst of something dissonant in 11/4 time. Other times, when the streams do interwine, it's as if your record collection had melted in the hot sun, with the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s all struggling for vour ear.

Contempt always has been Zappa's favorite weapon; but in his music and in his stage manner. After half-hearted sing-along, he growls "Let me explain something to you. When we say this is the part where you sing along, you bet your ass you're gonna sing those stupid words with me and you're gonna do it RIGHT NOW!" Sure enough, they sing, and when Zappa says "That's more like it," they roar in appreciation. Clearly, they find a compliment in being insulted by Frank Zappa.

To say that he performed "Don't eat the Yellow Snow," "Vamp in 10," "Magic Fingers" and encored with "Dyna Moe Hum" and "Muffin Man" explains nothing.

Each "song" is actually a collection of tunes, riffs, interludes, motifs and story fragments (Nanook and the Trapper of "Yellow Snow," for example, suddenly appear at "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast," an entirely new scene and song). Mostly they center on the odd and unspeakable, and it's always tough to decide whether his tunes are vehicles for his warped stories, or vice versa. The latter, probably.

 All one can say is that you had to be there. And if you're not a Frank Zappa fan, you're probably lucky you weren't.

1. FZShows: The 1978 World tour concerts in Chicago Uptown Theatre were on September 29. This article is based on the early show. The late show was released in full length as Chicago '78 in November 2016. Zappa's band: FZ, Ike Willis, Denny Walley, Arthur Barrow, Vinnie Colaiuta, Ed Mann, Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf.