Road Tapes, Venue #2
Frank Zappa fans have always had a soft spot - both in their hearts and their
minds - for the octet/nonet that went on tour for the great part of 1973, and
for the music that was played on so many stages all over the world. Those
stages being quite large, by the way, the music each night being performed in
front of more than a few thousand people: something that today's readers are
advised to keep in mind every time a hailstorm of tempos and melodies that in
today's climate will probably get filed under "abstruse" falls on
a deep affection that's due to the combination of two main factors: the high
quality of the music; and a feeling of things now being "back to
normal", at last. After the break-up of the Mothers Of Invention, in fact,
it appeared like Zappa was trying to reach greener pastures by greatly lowering
the quality of his music, now performed by a group - ex post labeled as
"the Vaudeville band" - where the "Flo & Eddie" front
line often told tacky jokes, the complexity of the music having for the most
part disappeared, though it has to be noted that the majority of the musicians
in the group were quite skilled performers.
it's true that history doesn't care about "what ifs", it was only
after a series of very unpleasant circumstances hit him hard - first,
instruments and P.A. being lost in a fire, as narrated by Deep Purple in their
hit song Smoke On The Water; later, when serious fractures he suffered when pushed
off the stage, and into the orchestra pit, in London, had him in a wheelchair
for a long time - that things appeared to really change direction.
albums released after that time - such great albums as Waka/Jawaka and The
Grand Wazoo - saw Zappa go back to a degree of complexity that for a moment it
had looked like he wanted to abandon forever, now with more than a few added
innovations; check the way a long track such as Big Swifty, while definitely
having a Miles Davis climate as its starting point, greatly surpasses its model
when it comes to its degree of structural control.
has to be told that in 1973 nobody was as happy as Zappa's Italian fans, for
the simple reason that 1973 was the first time Zappa played in Italy. Italy
hadn't seen the original Mothers, nor the group starring "Flo &
Eddie", nor the twenty-strong monstrosity ex post labeled Grand Wazoo that
could only read about in The Melody Maker: "Zappa at The Oval". No
Italian concerts ever, though there had been plenty dates before, both in the
United Kingdom and in Continental Europe. And so, though only two concerts were
planned - in August! Bologna on the 30th, Rome on the 31st - there sure was a
lot of joy around.
quite obvious - linguistic and cultural - reasons, Zappa's Italian fans did not
really possess the required skills to "get" Zappa's aesthetics, at
the time of the original Mothers Of Invention. It's possible that a highly
cultivated person could have spotted the syncretic and pragmatic slant - proper
to some U.S. philosophers - of his way of thinking. When it comes to their
"cultural" background, different nations were not as transparent then
as they are now.
entails that it was mostly his instrumental albums that Zappa's Italian fans
held in high esteem: the prodigious Hot Rats, of course; late Mothers' albums
such as Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flash; the aforementioned
Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo; and those individual tracks that provoked
mayhem, with Chunga's Revenge - a track featuring an alto sax soloing through a
wha-wha pedal - being a perfect for instance.
might look as no big deal, but it makes all the difference in the world. While
in the United States Frank Zappa is "in a category of one", in Italy
- also, other parts of Europe - he's part of the "difficult music for the
masses" panorama, of which he's "just" a specimen. Let's not
forget that in those days Italy kept afloat Genesis and Van Der Graaf
Generator, Gentle Giant and Soft Machine, Italian rock fans buying
"impossible to sell" albums such as Lizard and Islands in great
quantity, while considering listening to such tracks as Heart Of The Sunrise
being broadcast on the radio in their entirety at four p.m. as perfectly
counterproof is that even a quite attentive music critic such as Robert
Christgau doesn't really know where to "place" Frank Zappa's music,
and he has exactly the same problem when it comes to the music of King Crimson
and Henry Cow, with prefixes such as "art" - as in "art-rock"
- describing by implication the confines of a "genre".
nearness of Zappa and (so-called) Progressive is not to be found in their
(supposed) similarities, but in their being perceived as "part of the same
cloth" by a sizable chunk of the audience of the time.
the counterproof is that those critics who didn't like King Crimson and
Progressive - not to mention Faust and Henry Cow - didn't like Zappa.
has to be said that there were those who said they loved Zappa, not those
aforementioned other groups. But "loving" does not necessarily entail
"understanding", as their predilection for those colourful,
superficial "character" traits, not to mention their perennial
deafness when it comes to complexity - Zappa's and those other groups' - easily
shows beyond any possibility of doubt.)
counterproof is that today, when "rock" has become much poorer when
it comes to its "building blocks" - it goes without saying that when
it comes to performing skills things are quite self-evident - a young listener
perceives Frank Zappa's music as "incomprehensible". It's not,
obviously, something that can't possibly change. Let's just say I'm not holding
As it's widely known, Zappa recorded everything, concerts included. Of course,
only a tiny part of it all got released. Sometimes, it was obvious that
pragmatic reasons prevailed: What's the point in releasing a live album of
material X when its studio counterpart already proved to be a poor seller?
Still, there had been times when Zappa fans were almost frightened by the sheer
amount of new material being released.
Zappa's death, a lot has been released. I have to confess that quite often I've
held my hands high, my good sense - and my bank account - saying "No more,
I'd call the DVD-V Roxy - The Movie "indispensable". The unreleased Grand Wazoo live tapes released under the name Wazoo are also great, the same being
true, a few notches lower, of those by the Petit Wazoo released as Imaginary
Diseases. I'm sure I could add some more. But I'll define the recently released
follow-up to the Petit Wazoo story released under the name Little Dots as
"not exactly indispensable".
I'll say that it was due to my increasing sense of diffidence when it comes to
Zappa's family attitude when it comes to unreleased material that I decided to
wait a bit before buying Venue #2 at the time it was originally released by the
Zappa Family as part of a new series of concert tapes called Road Tapes, the
album being now released under the commercial framework that links the Zappa
Family and Universal, the label that - starting in 2012 - distributes the Zappa
say that it looks like the Road Tapes series is intended to be the
"follow-up" to the series called You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore,
which Zappa himself edited. Volume #2, The Helsinki Concert, is now widely
regarded as a classic, and as an excellent specimen of the group that toured in
1974. Maybe adding a Volume #2 recorded in Helsinki to this new series was
intended to warm up some additional enthusiasm? I have no way of knowing, of
course, but I'll say that while the '74 album was better recorded, and clearly
remixed, this one from '73 is the better specimen, if one talks only about the
course, here one has to compare the new album to such bootlegs as Piquantique,
Pigmy Pony, Dupree's Paradise, and Melbourne something. Can't help you here.
liner notes narrate in tiny details the technical difficulties. I'll say
something about the music.
Frank Zappa on guitar and vocals, the line-up features Ruth Underwood on
percussion, Ralph Humphrey on drums, George Duke on keyboards, Tom Fowler on
bass, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Ian Underwood on bass
clarinet and synthesizer. It's the same line-up that appears on Over-Nite
Sensation, released later the same year, and that toured the U.S. and Australia
before coming to Europe, the only exception being trumpet player (and singer)
Sal Marquez, who's absent here.
place this album beside the longer and more intricate compositions featured on
the double album Roxy & Elsewhere, released the following year. Here Zappa
makes good use of the brilliant, colourful palette made possible by this
line-up in order to create hard-to-perform entities - which at the time this
recording took place were for the most part unreleased - while adding a few
classic tunes from his past repertoire.
recorded sound won't win any prizes, but I only had to turn the volume up a bit
and add a few highs in order to enjoy the concert.
technically prodigious line-up, here the star is obviously Jean-Luc Ponty.
While highly skilled, though, he doesn't posses the same maturity of Fowler and
Underwood (Duke is in a class by himself). I was sorry to see that on this
particular night Underwood had not a lot of solo space, given the fact that
what he plays on bass clarinet and synthesizer - an ARP 2600, I think, a more
complex engine than the ARP Odyssey played by Duke - is truly excellent.
the "tutti" are not as clearly recorded as it would have been
desirable, electric bass, drums, and percussion are more than OK - as it's to
be expected, Ruth Underwood's vibes and marimba come often to the fore. Duke is
greatly featured on Fender Rhodes, Hohner Clavinet, synth, grand piano, Hammond
organ: while he plays great solos, he shows he has "giant ears" when
he "comps" behind Zappa and Ponty, with a very fine harmonic palette
and a good sense of "call and response".
assume Zappa to play a Les Paul, an instrument that's timbrally
"darker" than the SG appearing on the cover of Roxy & Elsewhere,
which for a time became his favourite stage instrument.
first CD starts with
the presentation of the instruments, which shows the great timbral variey of
both percussion and keyboards.
Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue is the first track, with a tempo that to me
sounds more martial, less relaxed, than the Rome performance. Fine counterpoint
from the Clavinet.
is followed by a few tracks on the brief side, some of them quite famous at the
Fu is brilliantly performed, the violin to the fore.
In Bondage is quite similar to the classic version that will be released in a
year or so, but here we have the violin with wha-wha, and a fine timbral
#4 = Uncle Meat Variations.
Breath is precise, inventive, with marimba and vibes.
Dog Breath Variations features a colourful ensemble, the violin has a brief
Meat is perfect, starring vibes, snare drum, marimba, and an excellent
it's time for a longer track:
unreleased at the time; theme performed to perfection, then the violin, then
the wha-wha guitar with great backing by half-open hi-hat, snare drum, Fender
Rhodes. Theme, then fine solos by trombone and Fender Rhodes. It ends with
excellent use of vibes and marimba.
has the instrumental theme sounding "just like the record" (Over-Nite
Sensation, unreleased at the time). Fantastic wha-wha guitar solo, with fine
backing by rhythm section and Clavinet. Fantastic ensemble melody.
Teeth And Your Shoulders and sometimes your foot goes like this..... /Pojama
Prelude. Announced as "Dupree's Paradise", it highlights many
keyboards: intro by Clavinet with wha-wha, followed by Hammond, Odyssey, Fender
Rhodes, then the ensemble. Grand piano. Over a "swing" base Zappa
sings/talks Pojama People, which will be released, in a quite different
setting, on One Size Fits All.
Paradise starts with its classic theme (which always reminds me of Gershwin).
Violin solo in double time, bass, ride cymbal, Fender Rhodes backing the solo,
a fine moment. Then it's time for a trombone solo, less showy then the
violin's, but just as beautiful. There's a guitar solo, at first sounding more
"acoustic", then - with backing by Duke on Rhodes - going full
feedback, then hitting the wha-wha pedal, a quite moving moment, the closing
featuring a quote off Echidna's Arf (Of You). A splendidly performed theme, and
Skate/Dun-Dun-Dun (The Finnish Hit Single). "We'll make something up, one
time only, for this audience here", says Zappa. Improvised,
"noisy", "cowbell!", vibes, a boogie. We have the trombone,
then the Hammond organ. It gets fast, with fine push by bass, drums, electric
piano. Agile guitar, with wha-wha, and "bent" notes, it's obvious
that Zappa feels he gets a fine backing. It ends with "Dun Dun Dun",
a classic "audience participation time".
second CD starts with three tracks that the following year will appear on Roxy
Of The Sun, featuring George Duke on vocals, is more lyrical- and
"Latin"-sounding than the "funky" version appearing on Roxy
Arf (Of You) has a more "relaxed" tempo than on Roxy. Impeccable bass
You Ever Wash That Thing? sounds a lot like the one featured on Roxy. Theme,
then a great bass clarinet solo by Ian Underwood, which makes one sad there
aren't a few more. Electric piano solo, drum solo (one can ear all drum
elements quite clearly). Closing theme, the violin to the fore.
Swifty starts with the usual theme, winds to the fore, with vibes and violin.
There's a Fender Rhodes solo, followed by a "Balkanic"-sounding
violin solo (it sounds like Zappa gave Ponty a scale), interesting
"broken" tempo. Zappa guitar solo, starting on the lower strings of
his Les Paul with fuzz, with a scale that to me sounds like the same Ponty used
for his solo, then going higher, for a quite tense, angular, very beautiful,
solo, which at times reminded me of the Fifty-Fifty solo. Theme, perfectly
O'Blivion is a multi-themed episode. A "jazzy" theme for ensemble,
marimba. Fine violin solo with echoplex, in a setting that sounds
"custom-made". Then we have the Be-Bop Tango theme, the violin to the
fore, and Ian Underwood's bass clarinet that's clearly audible. Readers will
have a lot of fun comparing it to the version featured on Roxy & Elsewhere.
Over a new setting, here's a typically brilliant trombone solo by Bruce Fowler.
There's a fine episode for clarinet and synthesizer, then violin with echoplex,
then percussion and bass. "Psychedelic music is here to stay", says
Zappa, maybe ironic about the echoplex in the violin solo?, then it's time for
the theme as performed on the vibes. Then it's time for "The Hook",
an ironic episode, with a "noisy"-sounding ensemble, then a drum
solo. With a fine contrast, coming from the instrumental chaos, here's the
theme to Cucamonga, with its bittersweet flavour, with the full ensemble in
action. Then, "The Hook".
Shoes Don't Make It is the classic song off Absolutely Free, finely rearranged
and performed, featuring Zappa and Duke (and Fowler?) on vocals. A fantastic
orchestration for an inspired vehicle.
encore in Rome was the famous song Arrivederci Roma. You Can't Do That On Stage
Beppe Colli 2017
CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 8, 2017