You can listen to all the Frank Zappa albums you want to, but there's no substitute for hearing Zappa's wild, crazy, and complex compositions performed live. When the Baltimore-born innovator died of prostate cancer in 1993, fans figured they'd seen their last Zappa show.
But 20 years later, Zappa's music and its live performance are enjoying a resurgence prompted by his son Dweezil, frontman of the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute band that began performing live shows of music from the maestro's massive catalog in 2006. Dweezil's got chops that rival his old man's on guitar, and the Zappa Plays Zappa ensemble is as talented as the elder Zappa's Mothers of Invention in its many incarnations.
Since Zappa Plays Zappa began touring, the band has played about a half-dozen shows in the Baltimore-D.C. area, the most memorable being a free outdoor concert following the unveiling of a bronze bust of Frank Zappa high atop Higlandtown in front of the Southeast Anchor Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library on the corner of Eastern and Conkling avenues. A portion of the street in front of the library was also renamed Frank Zappa Way on the fourth-annual, officially proclaimed Frank Zappa Day, Sept. 19, 2010.
More than 3,000 people attended the ceremony and performance that day, despite the fact that the Orioles were playing an afternoon home game against the Yankees and the Ravens were on TV. Most of those in attendance were nostalgic counterculture long-hairs who were amazed to see their feelings for Frank Zappa validated in such an official capacity.
With Dweezil slated to make another stop in town, at Rams Head Live, on Feb. 6, we checked in with him to reminisce about that day.
"It was something we never really suspected the city would totally approve," he says, remembering how his family reacted to the statue. "Then we thought, Why wouldn't they be proud to have Frank Zappa as someone hailing from their city? And we were glad to see that it finally happened. . . The way [Baltimore] did it was respectful and lovely."
With subsequent visits to town, the younger Zappa has hoped to encourage awareness of his old man's legacy.
"My biggest hope is to continue building a future audience for Frank's music," says Dweezil. "I would hope there would be something in Baltimore, particularly, where there would be more of a grassroots thing and spread the word even more, and for the younger generations to figure it out and be a part of it. . . . I just think it's a question that people don't know much about Frank's connection to the city."
Frank Zappa was born in Baltimore, where his father-an immigrant from Sicily-worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The family moved to Los Angeles when Frank was 11.
Zappa Plays Zappa shows are composed completely of music from Frank Zappa's repertoire, which the band plays note for note. Dweezil places his father's canon alongside that of classical composers and feels that it's never really received recognition from a wider audience.
"The best analogy is classical music," he says. "Because it's the job of the societies that enjoy preserving that music to give information about that music and protect the history of the music and have the music move forward for future generations without the music being changed or altered; it's respected for what it is. What happens with rock and pop music is that people assume that you're supposed to change it and modernize it and try to put a new spin on it in order to attract a new audience.
"Frank's music," he continues, "really has only itself to speak for itself, and it need not be changed in order to find a new audience. There just needs to be a way for it to reach an audience."
For better or worse, the first songs that come to mind when people think of Frank Zappa are the few that received radio airplay, usually because of their silly and irreverent catch-phrase lyrics: "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Dancin' Fool," and "Valley Girl." Commercial success was never Zappa's goal, but a wider appreciation for Frank's music on its own merit is something Dweezil strives for.
Some of Zappa's most enduring fans may have been lured in by the gross-out humor ("The Illinois Enema Bandit") or sexually explicit lyrics ("Dinah-Moe Humm") but ultimately came to appreciate the complexity and sophistication of Frank's compositions and his virtuoso guitar-playing.
"I've been doing this for seven years now and we've definitely seen a change in the demographic of the audience, and the young people that come to the shows have the same experience that everyone has when they first hear Frank's music," says Dweezil. "I grew up around the music, so when I heard music other than my dad's music, my feeling was, 'Well where's the rest of it? Why aren't there more instruments? Why isn't there more rhythmic diversity?' That kind of epiphany happens when people have a chance to listen to not just the casually exposed music of Frank, but the things that really represent what his music is. Over 80 albums, the songs that are humorous represent such a small portion of his music."
Dweezil has not so much inherited his father's guitar-playing skills and dexterity as he has honed his craft over a lifetime of serious study, hanging out with guitar heroes like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. He will be conducting 70-minute Masters in Guitar clinics prior to shows on the current tour. (The Baltimore clinic will be at Rams Head at 2 P.M. on Feb. 6.)
"We haven't done this before, but we're trying to see if we can be available for people," Dweezil says of the clinics. "A lot times after the shows, people have a lot of questions but we don't always have a lot of time. So we're trying to create some time to give people a chance to get better answers."
Dweezil hopes a Zappa Plays Zappa show is more than just the next-best thing to seeing the late Frank Zappa live in concert, but instead an experience on the continuum of Zappa, perpetuating both Frank and Dweezil's musical legacy.
Zappa Plays Zappa plays Rams Head Live Feb. 6 at 8 p.m.