Seconds after 8:00 p.m., Dweezil Zappa and his tribute to his father, Zappa Plays Zappa, strode out onto the Barrymore Theatre stage to the theme from “Star Wars.” The space-y theme was a fitting introduction to the wild world of Frank Zappa’s music.
To keep things interesting, both for fans and for themselves, the band is touring behind the 40th anniversary of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s 1975 album, One Size Fits All in the first set and then a selection of tunes from throughout Zappa’s catalog in the second.
The first frame opened with the intricate composition, “Inca Roads.” The six-member outfit paid fitting tribute to the complex tune, nailing each segment of the meandering song. Stretching to the double-digit mark with impressive phrasing from Dweezil on guitar, “Inca Roads” was one of the highlights of the first set.
The set continued with a pair of shorter tunes, “Can’t Afford No Shoes” and “Sofa,” a brief instrumental number, before launching into “Po-Jama People.” Showcasing Zappa’s fantastic lyricism and incredible work from the rhythm section, “Po-Jama People” is a down-tempo highlight of the album.
After an excellent run through “Florentine Pogen,” a brief take on “Evelyn, a Modified Dog” and “San Ber’dino,” the latter two featuring more of Zappa’s creative lyrics, the band launched into the intricate “Andy.” To cap off the hour-long set, the band played “Sofa No. 2,” a fitting closer to a take on the complete album.
Zappa’s tunes fall into two categories: songs with humorous lyrics and songs with many movements and complex arrangements with many falling in both categories. Zappa was so prolific that Dweezil told a story of his father being unhappy about being in a five-album recording contract, so he turned in five albums at once.
This kind of prolific behavior left Zappa Plays Zappa a large catalog of material to play around with in the second set. To open things up, the group began with “Outside Now,” a strong opener off Joe’s Garage, a three-part concept album that’s widely considered some of Zappa’s best work.
Up next was “The Grand Wazoo” off The Grand Wazoo. This sprawling tune opened up with a laid back, funky groove and quickly launched into a phenomenal sax solo from multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez that saw her use a combination of modulation effects and lightning quick runs to whip the older crowd into a fit of applause and cheers.
Dweezil then took the opportunity to play the role of conductor, instructing the rhythm section in terms of what to play and controlling the dynamics of the group with precision as the song stretched to the 20-minute mark.
After a strong take on “Suzy Creamcheese,” the band played a pair of songs from Apostrophe (‘), “Cosmik Debris” and “Apostrophe.” The former allowed another multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist Ben Thomas to show off his impressive command of Zappa’s unique vocals while even throwing in references to Wisconsin, a move that elicited cheers from the audience.
Ryan Brown’s work throughout the evening was particularly noteworthy as filling in for the legendary Terry Bozzio, who was a part of many Zappa bands, and is no easy feat. While he wasn’t called upon to play “The Black Page,” the legendary solo-drum composition, he kept up with the rich dynamics and challenging time signatures that are littered throughout Zappa’s music.
The band closed the second set with the legendary Zappa tune, “Montana.” One of the most frequently played songs by Zappa Plays Zappa, “Montana” saw strong work from the whole band and a call-and-response segment from Thomas and the audience as he instructed the crowd to add “Yippy-Ty-O-Ty-Ay” after he sang. While that might be a mouthful for most audiences, the now-standing crowd was more than adept at following along.
After a brief encore break, the group came out for a trio of tunes. They began with “Dancin’ Fool,” which got the crowd up and dancing to the whimsical lyrics and disco beat. The tone changed a bit, though the celebratory air in the crowd did not as they moved into “Zomby Woof” and then the Zappa and Captain Beefheart penned tune, “Muffin Man.”
Over the course of more than two hours of music, Zappa Plays Zappa showed why they have transcended pure tribute band and count themselves among the only people in the world that can do justice to the full swath of Frank Zappa’s catalog. Avoiding pure mimicry and instead, allowing the six talented musicians on stage to interpret the vast and challenging catalog as they see fit, Zappa Plays Zappa is one of the must-see acts for fans of rock, jazz, classical music or anything in between.