Frank Zappa's madness more inventive than ever

By James D. Dilts

The Baltimore Sun, October 19, 1971

Frank Zappa has always been the most madly inventive of rock musicians, and his concert at the Lyric Sunday night [1] proved that he has become even more so since he disbanded the Mothers of Invention a couple of years ago.

In the interim, he occasionally pulled them back together for short tours, and that was what I was expecting to see and hear Sunday night: the orginial Mothers doing some of their standard material, such as the ever-popular hits, "Louie, Louie," "Son of Suzy Creamcheese," etc. Zappa, as usual, crossed me up.

New band

With the exception of a couple of holdovers Ian Underwood and Don Preston, keyboard men from the old days – the band is new, and there wasn't a predictable moment from the time singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan ambled onstage, dressed like chorus members for a hip version of ''Oklahoma,'' and stood with their backs to the audience, warbling an introduction into the microphones.

Zappa and rest came out, tuned up at length ("We're going to make sure everything works so we can crank it off effectively for you," said Zappa) and launched into a tune from the Hot Rats album, "Peaches en Regalia," I think. The recorded version, put together in the studio using multi-tracking machines, is not reproducible in concert, but Volman and Kaylan did a creditable job of singing some of the instrumental parts, and the effect was remarkably like the original.

And what mothers these new Mothers are. Volman and Kaylan are both fine singers and musicians and participate with abandon in the general chaos. In fact, they are the center of it. Aynsley Dunbar churns up a constant barrage of firepower at the drums and when Zappa and Jim Pons, the bassist, and Underwood and Preston at the keyboards get moving all at once into one of their prolonged climaxes, the effect – with special lighting – is overwhelming.

"Peaches en Regalia" segued into a satire on several current trends and ended with straightforward sexual references to Motown. (What rock n' roll suggests, Zappa states – part of his charm.) The next tune, which Zappa introduced as "A Pound for Brown,'' was an instrumental with lots of tempo and mood changes.

What followed is impossible to interpret coherently. It concerned the seemingly endless saga of Billy the Mountain and his wife, Ethel, and their travels from the West Coast to New York. Along the way, it managed to distill Zappa's approach to rock music and social commentary as Billy and his wife destroy an agent delivering royalties, Edwards Air Force Base, a Howard Johnson's, and finally Studebaker Hawk, "a low-budget hero for the economic slump," according to Zappa, who has discovered that Ethel is a Communist.

Sounds of mountains

Volman and Kaylan knocked themselves out delivering special effects (sounds of moving mountains, etc.) and a long spoken piece that left everyone but them exhausted. Zappa, Underwood and Preston launched themselves into orbit several times, Dunbar played a drum solo, Underwood appeared from behind the battery of sound equipment to perform "The Studebaker Hawk dance and prayer for cosmic guidance," and at last a frozen beef pie was awarded to David Crosby (in absentia, needless to say) while Volman and Kaylan wreaked maximum vengeance on ''Judy Blue Eyes.''

But not even Billy the Mountain was enough for the audience which had jammed the Lyric and converted it into a warm, sweet-smelling haven. They cheered and stamped until Zappa and the band came back out for an encore, which began as ''Willie the Pimp," and ended as a satire on a current pop hit with the musicians inviting the audience to join in. (They didn't.)

More cohesive

This is, for my money, the best band that Zappa has fronted. The madness is more cohesive, if that is not a contradiction in terms, and the music, laced with allusions to jazz and the classics and just about anything else that sifts through Zappa's fertile imagination is strong and biting. It is not for everyone, but for Zappa fans, Sunday night was indeed a treat.

In the dressing room afterward, Zappa was in a somewhat feisty mood, arguing with the musicians about the placing of speakers and complaining about the acoustics at the Lyric (!). He said the band has been together about three months, that they are playing steadily again, and that "200 Motels, a surrealistic documentary'' of the Mothers will open shortly in 22 European cities and the United States. Here, it will be tried in four "test markets," Zappa announced in his carefully precise way. Baltimore is not one of them.

1. On October 17, 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention had two shows in Lyric Theatre, Baltimore. (Frank Zappa Gig List)