Only The Weather Was Cold

By Glenn Rechler

East Coast Rocker, March 30, 1988

FRANK ZAPPA/Beacon Theatre [1]

NEW YORK – A writhing line of human bundles huddled against the buildings and wrapped around the corner. The Beacon Theatre’s blaring marquis reminded us why we were bearing the icy winds that whipped up Broadway and ate through skin. “An Evening With Frank Zappa” it read. For those of us who had been waiting three years for the man’s return, the winds were worth bearing; we knew that we were about to witness an exhilarating exercise in free expression that would strike a blow to the treacherous forces of conformity.

This tour marks Frank Zappa’s 22nd year as a touring musician so it is fitting that these shows should have a retrospective flavor. In three concerts, all of two-and-a-half hours in length, the King Mother doses his fans with a little something from every period of his long career. The song arrangements are tailor-made for the most exciting band he’s toured with in many years. The 11-piece band features veteran Zappa players, Bobby Martin on keyboards and soaring vocals, the thunderous rhythm section of Scott Thunes and Chad Wackerman, the tireless Ed Mann on percussion and vibes, and the deep stylish vocals of the large Ike Willis. New to the band is guitarist, keyboardist and squealer Mike Keneally.

The dynamics of these players alone might be enough to blow your head off, but it’s not enough for Zappa who has put together a five-piece horn section that brings rock concerts to a new level of excellence. The horns are meticulously orchestrated to reveal the sheer beauty and idiosyncratic quirkiness of Zappa music.

At the start of each concert Zappa announces that this tour is also a voter registration drive and that you (yes, that means you), should fill out a form at intermission so that you may participate in this crazy little thing called democracy. The League of Women Voters are set up in the lobby of every show to help people remember how to spell their names and remember their address so that they’ll receive voter information.

While he explains all this, fans bring a sick assortment of gifts up to the stage: sex toys, stuffed penguins, pumpkins, an assortment of hats, blow-up dolls, nasty panties, a skull in a nazi helmet that reads Ed Meese on the side, Reagan masks, and some unidentifiable objects. By the third night the stage is overcrowded with gifts and the panties are hung from a clothesline that’s been stretched across the stage. Some guys get fan mail others get fan junk.

Standard Zappa favorites, “Montana” and “Stinkfoot” are sandwiched by lesser heard favorites such as “The Torture Never Stops,” and “Packard Goose.” Each set is sprinkled with tasty chunks of early Mothers of Invention material: “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” “Harry, You’re A Beast,” “Oh No!,” “Orange County Lumber Truck,” and the theme from “Lumpy Gravy.” How’s that for a medley? And for newer snacks of sound, there’s a medley devoted to tv evangelists, including the toe-tapper. “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk.” This song is a heartfelt plea to our senses not to be fooled by the Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts of the world. At one point Pat Robertson’s pathetic resume is read and his candidacy for president is revealed as a plan to lead us all into the Twilight Zone. Another new song points to Madison Avenue’s treatment of women in a Lou Rawlsian soulfulness that you never thought you’d hear from Zappa.

These concerts double as a guitar lesson for any one interested in the high art of ax wielding. Zappa’s mathematical solos have a wide range of textures, some are searing, others are twinkling, but all are mesmerizing. His guitaring fury might be couched in confused rhythms for one number and burning through bluesy riffing for the next. Guitar anthems like, “Watermelon In Easter Hay” and “Black Napkins” provide an opportunity to witness the kind of playing found on his three-record set, Shut up and Play Yer Guitar.

The most interesting part of the concerts Is an improvisatory section that utilizes the synclavier. Absurd sounds and congressional voices, including Tipper Gore, are sampled and worked into spontaneous instrumentals which are directed by Zappa. One night the abstract jam worked its way into a requested version of “Happy Birthday” (to Bob) and then slid back into abstraction. There aren’t many bands these days that have any spontaneity in their concerts; in these improvisations, Zappa demonstrates what a vital element this is to a live performance.

Much of the hubub over this tour has centered around the fact that Zappa is playing a couple of outrageous cover tunes. First, “I Am The Walrus,” complete with yellow matter custard. The production is amazing with horns and synthetic strings making it sound just as you would have hoped.

The audience happily filled in the haunting “oooooohs” in between “I am the egg man...” and ... “I am the Walrus”. Then, there’s the classic, "Tied To The Whipping Post” which is becoming as popular a Zappa song as it is an Allman Brothers song. But the one that’s really dropping jaws is “Stairway To Heaven.” That’s right, “Therz a laydee hooz shir...” and all that. What’s so amazing about this version of "Stairway...” is that when we expect to hear the famous guitar solo, Zappa melts our ears with an exact transcription of Page’s solo played by the horn section! Every nuance of Page’s solo is institutionalized as classic by this clever tactic. If this doesn’t sound amazing all I can say is, go hear it yourself.

1. Three concerts, 1988 February 4, 5, 6. (zappateers tracker)

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)