For someone known to keep an extensive live archive, there really isn’t as much live Frank Zappa as you’d think. Sure, there are over 100 records but they run the gamut from studio records to collections of guitar solos to classical works.
In his lifetime, Zappa released only a couple full concerts; in the two decades since, a few more have come out. It sounds like a lot, but compared to, say, The Grateful Dead, it’s just a drop in the bucket. And like the Dead, no two Zappa shows are the same: guitar solos change drastically from night to night, not to mention full-band improvisations or tricky medleys.
Enter the Road Tapes series. These discs, currently on volume three, take less-than-stellar quality tapes of interesting and eventful shows and shine a light on the darker corners of the Frank Zappa back catalogue. The first was a full Mothers of Invention show from 1968, the second was two hours from his mid 70s, jazz-leaning band. The latest is a look at his 1970 band, which actually straddles a middle ground between the two while also being a completely unique group.
In early July, Frank Zappa and the Mothers rolled into the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN. They brought along a two-track tape deck and recorded two sets. The sound isn’t great, but the playing is and it shows Zappa at an intersection of sorts.
On the one side was his days with the original Mothers, who’d broken up about a year previously. On the other was his jazz aspirations. He’d just recorded Hot Rats, a fusion-influenced record full of tricky rhythms, extended solos and long instrumental passages. He’d made his name with the Mothers, who played politically charged psychedelic rock, but was moving away from that, towards a less pointed, more intricate kind of music.
Frank Zappa’s new band (also called The Mothers, or MOI) reflected this. It featured the English drummer Aynsley Dunbar and jazz keyboardist George Duke, plus Ian Underwood on reeds and keyboards. On the other hand, he enlisted Jeff Simmons on bass and The Turtles two vocalists: Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who brought a quick wit along with their formidable vocal prowless. A small unit, but with this he could play complex arrangements like “Pound for a Brown” or long improvisations but also crank out driving, catchy rock: “Sharleena,” for example. Hell, they even cover Stravinsky!
The early show has Frank Zappa and the Mothers cranking through songs the audience would be familiar with: “The Air,” “Mom and Dad” and “Dog Breath” were all staples of the previous MOI’s sets. At the same time, Volman and Kaylan’s vocals give the older material a new sparkle; they’re far better vocalists than Zappa ever was.
But what really jumps out is the playing. They open with“King Kong,” tear through several older MOI tunes and blaze into with a hard-rocking “Call Any Vegetable,” complete with a sizzling, bluesy Zappa guitar solo. It’s all one continuous medley, too. Dunbar’s drumming propels the band along and when he leads them in with a bang during Zappa’s solo, it’s like a door being kicked open. The medley ends with a long reprise of “King Kong,” complete with an interesting saxophone solo by Underwood and Duke going nuts at his keyboard, first tearing through his own solo and eventually leading the crowd in a call-and-response drum chant.
The second set is more of the same, really. The band tears into some more old Mothers tracks, although they only repeat two songs, and there’s extended workouts on “Orange County Lumber Truck,” “Call Any Vegatable,” and “The Return of the Hunchback Duke.” It’s interesting to note how the two versions of “Vegetable” differ: the late version has nice solos by Duke and Underwood but Zappa mostly plays rhythm in the background.
Of course, it wasn’t just old Mothers tunes: there’s a few then-new songs, too. “Wonderful Wino” is an irreverent song about a drunk and “Sharleena” is a bluesy song about a lost lover. Both would stick around in this band’s repertoire and sound a little raw – the versions on Carnegie Hall, recorded a little over a year later have a more palpable swagger and confidence – but they’re interesting. So is the early version of “Chunga’s Revenge,” which closes out the disc. It’s an open-ended song, with plenty of space for soloing and although it meanders a little bit, it’s also filled with some nice guitar work by Zappa.
All in all, this is an interesting snapshot of the so-called Flo and Eddie era of Frank Zappa’s music right at the very beginning. In the months after this, the two singers would influence Zappa with their goofy sense of humour: soon they’d do short skits between songs, trade dirty jokes and start forming the personas they’d spin off into a successful solo career: a bunch of solo records, a radio show and even a few TV gigs. Zappa, meanwhile, used his experience on the road as background for his movie 200 Motels.
As two sets of music, it’s definitely for the kind of fan who already likes Frank Zappa’s music. As noted, tape flaws early in disc one mean the sound’s kind of rough, as one channel’s duplicated into stereo. But even so, it’s a nice snapshot of the band playing well: they rip through the old Mothers songs the crowd wanted to hear (you can hear their enthusiastic response to several older songs) and when given room to spread out and solo, they seize the opportunity. This era is sometimes maligned for it’s juvenile sense of humor – which Zappa often featured on his records – but records like this show the band as a tight, talented ensemble. If you can get past the sound, and you like Zappa’s music, this is a fun listen.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.