Frank Zappa
Philly '76

(Vaulternative Records)

It's so weird, having decided to review a Frank Zappa album, finding oneself at a loss for words, looking at a white page with no idea about what to say. A quite peculiar feeling, when one takes into consideration the high quality of this (double) CD set, featuring a lot of great music, a line-up that's been undocumented on Zappa's official releases, a repertory that's quite varied and (at the time, was) full of surprises, a recorded sound that's full and clean, never tiring (an aspect I'll talk about at some length later), sold at a really cheap price (as we'll see, the first edition of Philly '76 was released in 2009), the full length of this release being comparable to a triple or quadruple vinyl set.

Just like in a live concert, not everything here is unmissable, and I'm certain that had Zappa himself edited this release he would have cut and overdubbed here and there, as per his usual. But the end result is quite good all the same, with fine vocals and excellent instrumental performances, Zappa the guitar player appearing at his relaxed best, with more than a few transcendent moments. So?

Fact is, times have changed. And when listened to with "today's ears" - mine, as impersonating nowadays "average listener" - this work, while not at all "difficult", could easily be regarded as being "nearly incomprehensible".

If one assumes the perspective one could label as "the list of the ingredients", one could say that those who possess ten historic albums among those that are said to have been "highly influential" in the history of rock music should have no problems appreciating this work. The crucial aspect being that those albums, whatever they are, should have already been understood and digested, something which cannot be easily taken for granted anymore.

There's something else to consider: many musicians who today present themselves as - or are regarded as being - "eclectic" play ho-hum music due to their meagre technical resources, their (supposed) influences often being nothing more than their owning a large record collection, with music being confined in their minds, without any chance of living on the tips of their fingers. While the very idea of an "instrumental exploration" which could potentially lead one to unknown peaks was buried long ago under those discourses about "self-indulgent solos", as defined by mediocre, lazy listeners and "critics".

This concert, held at the Spectrum, Philadelphia, October 29th, 1976, was recorded on 16 tracks by the Record Plant Mobile, in what could be defined (ex post) as a peculiar period in Zappa's career. After Zappa's "reunion" with Captain Beefheart, documented on the live album Bongo Fury ('75), Zappa had seen quite a few pivotal members of his band - among them, the Fowler bros. (Tom and Walt), George Duke, and Napoleon Murphy Brock - leave the group. A new album, titled The Night Of The Iron Sausage, was said to appear in a short while, but never did (not under that title). The album that was released, Zoot Allures, showed on its cover a group that did not play on said album. Lawsuits were announced, and amid much turmoil a new album, Zappa In New York, only appeared more than one year later.

It was in the Summer of '76 that I saw the first (and only) picture of the band that appears on Philly '76. On drums, Terry Bozzio was the only member left from the previous line-up. On bass, someone I'd never seen before: Patrick O'Hearn. Quite surprisingly, former Roxy Music Eddie Jobson sat on keyboards and violin. Then, the front-line: Ray White on guitar and vocals, and Bianca on vocals and keyboards.

Readers are asked to remember that a lot of what I know of those times - as read at the time on Italian magazines - could well prove to be not true, or at least dubious. I recall Zappa saying (in Italian) "The guys in the group are so scared of making mistakes that I have Ray and Bianca as lively members for the show". Described as "a very religious man", Ray White stayed for a while and then went away, only to come back later, to become, with Ike Willis, a large part of Zappa's excellent front-line. Bianca "played only a few concerts with us, then I let her go", said Zappa (in Italian). Why was that, I had no way of knowing. (Even her surname appeared to vary, from Odin to Thorton.) What a surprise!, seeing that the liner notes to Philly '76 were written by none other than Bianca Odin, who does not reveal any details about her leaving the group.

Frank Zappa's love for black music is well-known, from blues to rhythm & blues to doo-wop, and his best front-lines saw him skillfully employ those who were highly conversant in those genres. It's not just a matter of possessing great skill: in this company, Zappa's humour becomes more light and funny, less cynical and spiky.

I think it can be said that Bianca's leaving the group - a line-up that I heard for the first time here on this release - was not without audible consequences. I remember listening to a bootleg, a long time ago - Titties & Beer, Live In Paris - and the quintet was not the same. Adding winds and percussion, the excellent Live In New York hit a different target.

As stated above, the album was recorded at Zappa's request, then transferred to digital by Zappa, assisted by Bob Stone. Joe Travers cloned those files into a hard drive. Then, in 2008, Frank Filipetti mixed and mastered the album.

Filipetti's CV is excellent, as even a quick Web search will show. But there's also "independent evidence" we can examine: Vol. 6 from the You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore series features - the year is wrong, and Eddie Jobson's name is nowhere to be found, proving that Zappa's health was already in very bad state - an excerpt from this concert, remixed by Spence Chrislu. I obviously ignore the time restrictions under which Chrislu worked, and it's also true that the evolution of converters since that time has been considerable, and quite easy to perceive. I'll only say that if Philly '76 sounded like the track Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station as presented by Chrislu I'd have problems suggesting people to listen to this concert recording for its whole duration (2hrs+).

Here Filipetti often highlights bass and drums, and it goes without saying that those particular musicians fully deserve the attention. Compared to what I'd call "the Zappa style", Filipetti's way sounds more "modern", the guitar being kept low in volume, while being at the same time quite easy to listen to, due to a very precise equalization work, with drums sounding quite "massive". I seemed to detect a more "narrative" approach in Filippetti's approach to the guitar solos, the volume of the rhythm section changing quite considerably during Zappa's solos. It's not really like watching faders move, but almost. This is no real criticism, but - as it's to be expected - here one hears a different mind at work.

Readers are well aware that 2012 was the start of a new collaboration between the Zappa Family and Universal, which reprinted Zappa's whole catalogue, as released when he was still alive. I was quite surprised to see tens of new titles appearing recently, those released by Zappa's family after his death. I had considered the technicalities of those releases to be quite questionable, starting with the price. I was surprised to notice that the copy of Philly '76 in my possession is not - as I had assumed - a re-release, but the same edition that was released in 2009. Hence, my question: how many copies were really sold of those "limited editions"?

And now - at last! - let's have a closer look at the album.

The line-up is technically excellent. The proficiency of bass and drums is quite self-evident, the same being obviously true for Zappa's guitar. Eddie Jobson builds the "body" pf the sound on (I think) Hammond organ, Clavinet, Mini-moog, a "string ensemble" of some sort (think: Solina/ARP String Ensemble), and violin. Ray White is an excellent rhythm guitar player, Bianca acts as a backing player, sometimes coming to the fore on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. With the only exception of Jobson, all contribute vocal parts, which - as expected - are quite inventive.

Featured tunes come a bit from everywhere: Zoot Allures (not yet released at the time of the concert), Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe ('), Chunga's Revenge and 200 Motels, even Freak Out!, with material that'll only appear a while later on Zappa In New York and Sheik Yerbouti.

Let's have a quick look at the songs.

The Purple Lagoon opens the concert with its intricate instrumental development, quite rhythmic. Enters Zappa, hello!, band introduction.

Stink Foot is lively, with a first brief episode for guitar, then a lengthy solo. Rhythm section gets louder, excellent cymbals

The Poodle Lecture is a spoken track.

Dirty Love is a lively r&b, Bianca on lead vocals. Brief guitar solo, a very fine Ray White on rhythm guitar.

Wind Up Workin' In A Gas Station - "new song, cut one, side one" off the new album, out for Halloween - has a great vocal ensemble work: Bianca, Ray White, and Zappa.

Tryin' To Grow A Chin has excellent drums and very fine vocal parts, quite different in approach compared to the version featured on Sheik Yerbouti.

The Torture Never Stops has a "dry"-sounding rhythm section, Ray White as second vocalist, fine backing from the Fender Rhodes, and a great guitar solo, which starts sottovoce, la Pink Napkins, then exploding la Rat Tomago.

City Of Tiny Lights starts with rhythm guitar, then frantic Clavinet. There's a unison solo from vocals and effected guitar, in a way an "acid" version of things George Benson used to play at the time. It sounds more r&b, less "metal", than the version which later appeared on Sheik Yerbouti, and it's certainly intended to show "another side of Ray White". Dunno if Zappa would have kept it as is on an officially released album.

You Didn't Try To Call Me here sounds like a sentimental r&b, opening section sounding a lot - listen to the vocals and Fender Rhodes - like Aretha Franklin, with gospel chords. Fine vocal blend of Bianca and Ray White, and an almost-scat ending.

Manx Needs Women is a brief, intricate instrumental interlude which is bound to remind one of Uncle Meat, with fine use of the Mini-moog.

Chrissiy Puked Twice is just the Titties & Beer which will first appear on Zappa In New York, with Terry Bozzio impersonating the devil. Bianca is great on vocals.

Black Napkins opens CD 2. This version lasts almost twenty minutes. Theme, a long vocal solo by Bianca with fine backing from the electric bass, which sounds like a fretless Precision to me. A long violin solo by Jobson. The most beautiful moment is Zappa's solo, delicate and quite noteworthy.

Advance Romance sounds more natural and lively than the version featured on Bongo Fury. Bianca on vocals, bass solo, suddenly without power, then the bass is back on, with fine backing from the drums. Fine guitar solo by Zappa on the verge of feedback, with good backing from White's Stratocaster, sounding quite typically "with no mids".

Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me? sounding funky, is perfect. Excellent vocals, fine keyboard orchestration.

Then it's time for three brief, lively-sounding tracks off Chunga's Revenge-200 Motels.

Rudy Wants To Buy Yez A Drink is funny and agile, with Zappa on vocals and the group acting as backing.

Would You Go All The Way? is fun to listen to, just like

Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, in perfect r&b style.

What Kind Of Girl Do You Think We Are? brings us back to the album Fillmore East, June 1971, with lotsa blues and excellent vocals.

Dinah-Moe Humm ends the concert sounding quite funky, with perfect interlocking vocals.

Then it's time for the encores.

Stranded In The Jungle - a cover of a song from the 50s - sports a doo-wop levity.

Find Her Finer - "the new single" (!) "off the new album" - travels in parallel to the version featured on Zoot Allures.

Camarillo Brillo is impeccably sung and played.

Muffin Man ends the concert with a moment of "audience participation time", the audience a bit on the shy side, and fine guitar.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | June 22, 2017