Frank Zappa
Road Tapes, Venue #2

(Zappa Records)

Longtime 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 their ears.

It's 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.

While 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.

Those 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.

It 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.

For 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.

This 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.

It 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 normal.

The 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".

The 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.

Here 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.

(It 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.)

Another 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 my breath.

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.

After 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, please!".

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".

So 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 catalogue.

I'd 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 music.

Of 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.

The liner notes narrate in tiny details the technical difficulties. I'll say something about the music.

Besides 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.

I'd 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Though 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".

I 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.

The first CD starts with

Introcious, the presentation of the instruments, which shows the great timbral variey of both percussion and keyboards.

The 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.

This is followed by a few tracks on the brief side, some of them quite famous at the time.

Kung Fu is brilliantly performed, the violin to the fore.

Penguin 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 palette.

Exercise #4 = Uncle Meat Variations.

Dog Breath is precise, inventive, with marimba and vibes.

The Dog Breath Variations features a colourful ensemble, the violin has a brief solo.

Uncle Meat is perfect, starring vibes, snare drum, marimba, and an excellent ensemble.

Now it's time for a longer track:

RDNZL, 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.

Montana 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.

Your 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.

Dupree's 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 close.

All 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".

The second CD starts with three tracks that the following year will appear on Roxy & Elsewhere:

Village Of The Sun, featuring George Duke on vocals, is more lyrical- and "Latin"-sounding than the "funky" version appearing on Roxy & Elsewhere.

Echidna's Arf (Of You) has a more "relaxed" tempo than on Roxy. Impeccable bass part.

Don't 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.

Big 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 performed.

Farther 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".

Brown 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.

The encore in Rome was the famous song Arrivederci Roma. You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | Jan. 8, 2017