Concert Review: Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra

By John Morris and Bob Hippler

Fifth Estate, May 26, 1973

The scene was a full house at Cobo Hall – hippies, weekend hippies, pseudo-hippies and, mainly, a lot of people looking for some real feeling in their lives. They were hoping to find it in the “concert of the year” – John McLaughlin the Mahavishnu Orchestra plus Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on the bill. [1]

 The Mahavishnu Orchestra came on first, to the loving applause of the crowd. Their instruments included a double lead guitar, a futuristic set of every drum imaginable, a bass, a sampling of various horns and woodwinds, and finally a Moog synthesizer.

As their set got underway, the diverse influences which have formed the band emerged – all at once. The guitar sound was very strong, mostly atonal and cacophonous, reminding listeners of Ravi Shankar’s traditional sitar. The sound of the horns and woodwinds blended in smoothly but was improvisational and free-form, showing influence from American jazz. The Moog synthesizer was used for special effects – for example a minute-long, gong-like reverberation which along with a splash of purple lights, opened the show. It was also used to complement the other instruments, bringing in a tone of the electronic, computerized music which has developed over the last ten years in this country.

And finally there were the drums – the vital center of the band at all times, and manned by a sophisticated musician – the only black in the band – who makes heavy handed Ginger Baker look like an amateur night winner. He was capable of 20-second surges of complete energy and coordination, followed by featherlight mood pieces – from cymbals to light drums to silence to whatever he thought of next. The predominance of heavy percussion in the band was the clearest influence of contemporary rock and roll. The group even dropped back to allow a long drum solo, a la Led Zeppelin, but much more imaginative and sophisticated.

Overall, despite the diversity of influences on the band, Mahavishnu did a pure thing – all instrumental, few gimmicks, and a spiritual message that combined great strength and a feeling of all-pervasive peace. At the end, the group joined arms at the shoulder and did a joint bow, a great way to convey their message of love. To say the least, the crowd dug it, applauding raucously for an encore. During the applause, in the darkened atmosphere, a couple of thousand people lit matches and lighters, holding them until the band came back. The lights were a beautiful sight, looking like a galaxy of stars, the audience’s response to the beauty they had just been given on the stage.

The next part of what WABX billed as this year’s “battle of the bands,” was Zappa and his crew, giants in the rock world for years. They didn’t try to outdo the Mahavishnu, they did a different thing, and just as well. Zappa’s music was a confrontation. Using every instrument you could imagine in a band, it changed suddenly from loud to soft, from jazz to rock, from country to blues, from lyrical to instrumental, and from almost classical to campy cocktail lounge music, Zappa injected his personality and various gimmicks into the show, unlike the Mahavishnu. He led the huge band like a Wizard of Id conductor when he wasn’t playing lead guitar; he rapped with the crowd some, and somebody from the back of the hall screamed “Happy Mother’s Day!” (Mother’s Day began that midnight). Zappa returned the greeting, urging everybody to send their cards and letters.

Zappa was loose, and so was his music. His self-proclaimed masterpiece of the evening was a musical skit, partly choreographed: It starts outside an Eskimo igloo in Alaska. The Eskimo spots an evil man trying to kill a baby seal and, thinking quickly, grabs a patch of yellow snow (due to sled dogs) and rubs it in the man’s eyes. The seal killer staggers around blindly for a while, finally deciding that a return to religion might restore his sight. So he starts off across the tundra in search of his childhood church, St. Alphonso’s Catholic parish. He finally gets there, just in time for the Sunday pancake breakfast, and attempts to cure his affliction by wiping pancake syrup in his eyes. (We can’t give away the ending).

The skit, we are sure, warmed the hearts of the many ex-Catholics in the audience, and Zappa’s irreverence was a traumatized childhoods.

Zappa has mellowed quite a bit. Instead of doing the stinging political satire he is now doing more culturally-oriented humorous skits that don’t grate on our already frayed nerves. Many people get hung upon Zappa, trying to figure out his deep meaning, and leave bewildered. Others just laugh and let it happen, the farce, absurdity and the ever-changing but appealing music, complemented by a crazy assortment of lights that goes in rhythm with the changes.

A final question might be – who won the battle of the bands? One of us liked Mahavishnu more, one liked Zappa more, so lets call it a draw. Most importantly, both bands charmed the audience out of any residual cynicism and despair left over from the Detroit environment and gave it what it came for – art as reality, and music with a feeling.

1. Sunday, May 12, 1973. No tape of this concert is known.