Dweezil Zappa

Dweezil Zappa plays Hot Rats

Birmingham Town Hall
Wednesday, 11th December 2019

In October 1969, Frank Zappa released an album which was to have a massive impact on the rock music world, still being felt fifty years on. The innovative blend of rock and jazz startled his audience in that it was completely different to the recently split Mothers of Invention. Frank described it as “a movie for your ears”. Hot Rats was a technical masterpiece for many reasons, not least his groundbreaking use of 16-track recording technology, which became the norm soon afterwards. His son Dweezil is marking this significant anniversary by taking the album on the road, playing it in full for the first time ever all over the world, and on 11th December 2019 he concluded the UK leg of this ongoing trek at Birmingham Town Hall. Chatting with other fans in a nearby watering hole before the show, it is apparent that Frank’s legacy as celebrated by Dweezil still has enduring appeal, and not only to 60 year old greying geezers like me, as there is a fair smattering of much younger converts in attendance, a fact which must please Dweezil, since this must be the main reason for taking a year out of his life to devote to spreading the word and keeping the music alive.

The show opens with a crowd-pleasing Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow to ease the band and audience alike into the evening before launching into the main attraction, Hot Rats. So how would the band recreate an album recorded with multiple overdubs, and some instrumentation unavailable to them? The answer seems to be that rather than slavishly attempting to produce a carbon copy of the sound of that music, they have gone for reproducing the feel and ambience whilst adapting some parts to suit the line-up. It still sounds remarkably faithful to the original album, but incorporates perhaps a dash of irreverence entirely in keeping with Frank’s approach to music. Peaches En Regalia then, surely one of the most well-known songs in the entire catalogue, kicks us off, and immediately it is clear that the band are well-drilled, yet given the space to enjoy the performance of a demanding piece with joyous results. Dweezil avoids the trap of producing a clinical performance, instead giving us a near note-perfect rendition with added pizzazz. Moving on to Willie the Pimp, the only vocal song on Hot Rats, and Adam Minkoff with his versatile larynx produces a pretty good impression of Captain Beefheart’s delivery.

Dweezil gives the track a suitably styled guitar solo without copying the original, and the band are noticeably relaxing into the evening. Ryan Brown on drums and Kurt Morgan on bass play with a swing consistent with the original record, and everything feels right. The most obvious element missing from the instrumentation, which was an important part of the original, is electric violin. Don ’Sugarcane’ Harris made remarkable contributions to Willie the Pimp and The Gumbo Variations back in ’69, but obviously financial constraints made the addition of a violinist for two songs a night on a year-long world tour unfeasible. However, Dweezil manages to compensate by playing several guitar parts evoking the tone of the electric violin. The result is so effective one almost forgets there’s anything different to the album happening on stage. Son of Mr Green Genes is a song they have played before, and is perfect. We then move to side two of the original vinyl, and Little Umbrellas. Dweezil informs us that prior to this tour, the song has never been performed live, and indeed it is one of the ’forgotten’ songs from the album, but that’s a bit of a shame as it is delicate and fun, and it’s great to hear live at last. Next up is the tour de force of The Gumbo Variations, where the whole band get to shine with some extended improvisation. Scheila Gonzales, one of Dweezil’s longest-serving bandmates, particularly stands out with her superb sax solo, and earns a cheer mid-song for her efforts. Chris Norton on keyboards similarly dazzles whilst Adam Minkoff and Cian Coey add percussive colour.

And so to the final song on Hot Rats, again not performed live by Frank Zappa, and introduced by Dweezil as “weird, even for Frank”, It Must Be A Camel has some difficult and intricate parts, but this band show that they are capable of playing just about anything, and this turns out to be one of the night’s highlights, bringing the song alive in a way I’ve not heard before. The band troop off to riotous applause, and if the evening ended there, it would have been worth it, but that’s just part one folks.

The second set is obviously going to be a flit through the great man’s huge body of work, so anything might crop up, and we prepare to be surprised, or not as the case may be! First song is Montana, and we can see how vocally adept this line-up is. Every member of this band has a vocal part to play at some point, and this makes the current band one of the most flexible Dweezil has assembled. Teenage Wind takes us to sing-along territory, balancing out the mainly instrumental first set. Soon though we are taking a left turn to spend a few minutes with 200 Motels, and some Bogus Pomp followed by the infamous Penis Dimension. The song selections certainly provide the uninitiated with a flavour of the breadth of Zappa’s work, moving from the most straightforward to the avant-garde in a heartbeat. Before we get too lost in complexity we are dragged back to the simple daftness of The Knack’s My Sharona, a song which Frank once incorporated into one of his performances for fun, Dweezil turning the gesture on its head by incorporating a snatch of Zappa in the middle of the song. We simply have no idea what is coming next with this seemingly random dotting around, and yet it somehow seems to hang together. Soon we are treated to a suite of songs from You Are What You Is, and I’m transported back to Wembley Arena in 1981 when Frank first aired much of the album live prior to its release. The band have created their own momentum and charge from one song to the next without pause for breath, and the ride is exhilarating. Pick Me, I’m Clean has an extended guitar solo, and Dweezil gets as close to the spirit of his father’s playing that I’ve yet heard. He seems to have evolved his own style, yet channelling the essence of Zappa Senior, and the result is something special. Eventually we reach the closing song, a romp through Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy. On the whole, Dweezil tends to avoid overdoing the sex comedy songs, preferring to highlight the compositional side of his father’s work, but the occasional foray is perfectly acceptable, and Carolina is a fun song to finish on.

For the inevitable encore, a young lad from the front of the crowd is hauled on stage to play guitar. I can only assume Dweezil knew in advance that he could play, because Sam turns out to be pretty darn good as he trades solos with Dweezil on Muffin Man. Tears Began To Fall follows, another vocal highlight, and then the band bid us goodnight with the two-minute wall of noise that is Weasels Ripped My Flesh. After this, everyone in the hall is beaming, band and crowd. Dweezil has a band to be proud of, and his approach to curating the legacy hits the right balance between accuracy and fun, seriousness and frivolity. I’ve not seen him play better, and I’ve seen him many times. Frank Zappa’s music and reputation are safe in Dweezil’s hands, and that’s worth celebrating.

Set 1

Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow
Peaches En Regalia
Willie the Pimp
Son of Mr Green Genes
Little Umbrellas
The Gumbo Variations
It Must Be A Camel

Set 2
Teenage Wind
I’m Not Satisfied
200 Motels/Bogus Pomp
Penis Dimension
My Sharona
Who Needs the Peace Corps?
Bamboozled By Love
Brown Moses
Heavenly Bank Account
I’m A Beautiful Guy
Beauty Knows No Pain
Charlie’s Enormous Mouth
Any Downers?
Pick Me, I’m Clean
Here Lies Love
Twinkle Tits
Dupree’s Paradise
Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus
Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy
~ Encore:
Muffin Man
Tears Began To Fall
Weasels Ripped My Flesh

Dweezil Zappa – Guitars, Vocals
Scheila Gonzalez – Sax, Keyboards, Vocals
Adam Minkoff – Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion
Cian Coey – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Ryan Brown – Drums, Vocals
Kurt Morgan – Bass, Vocals
Chris Norton – Keyboards, Vocals

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