Mothers of Invention Zaps Out Audience With Esoteric, Crazy, Entertaining Music

By Steve Cheseborough

Statesman, December 3, 1973

Zappa. The name alone is enough to drive some people to musical ecstasy, others to physical disgust. Zappa is well-known as being a trained and sophisticated musician, an exciting stage performer, and gross. This final adjective may not be true anymore – the umbrellas brought by people in the front rows proved unnecessary – but the first two attributes still hold as much as ever.

At Saturday night's concert [1], the Mother's infamous craziness was still in evidence, but it was secondary to the business of making good music.

A Zappa concert is an experience unlike any other. Here is a ringside account of the action:

The Mothers come on first and start fiddling with their instruments. Then Frank walks out, accompanied by a huge, bald bodyguard who looks like he just stepped out of The Arabian Nights. Wearing an "Only You Can Prevent Concerts" t-shirt, the guard sits a few feet from Zappa and remains there throughout the show, in deep concentration, occasionally rocking to the music.

Zappa picks up his Gibson SG, tunes up, lights a cigarette and sticks it behind the strings, Clapton-style. Finally he introduces the band. Each member playing a little as his name was called.

They open with "Pygmy Twilight," a soul number featuring the vocal talents of Napoleon Murphy Brock, who also doubles on flute and saxes. The song is enhanced by a synthesizer rush on each measure and a strong beat from the drum section. Brock does an elaborate act, going thorugh the motions of smoking dope, snorting coke, tying off his arm with a towel and shooting up. He ends up almost dying on stage. His wild antics make an interesting contrast to Zappa's cool presence, but Brock comes out looking like a fool.

On "Penguin in Bondage" they make uses of kazoos. One of the goals of the Mothers' act is to shock and surprise you, visually and musically. And they do it, whether using strange vocal percussion, having all three percussionists stand and rub their heads with their drumsticks, or just placing bizarre musical lines in unexpected places.

Zappa in Control

Despite the enormous amount of talent embodied in the eight Mothers, Zappa is still very much in control here. There are occasional solos, but the Mothers are not a jamming band. They arc all highly trained musicians, chosen by Zappa to play his music. Frank is always the center of attention. When not playing his superb wah-wahed guitar he is conducting with his right hand, or lighting up another cigarette.

Also fun to watch is the amazing Ruth Underwood, who plays vibes, marimba, tympani, bass drum, congas and gongs, and several other percussion instruments. She stands at the far left of the stage, surrounded by her huge array of instruments. During every song she runs around feverishly, setting down a set of drumsticks to pick up mallets, then playing a fast rur on the vibes and rushing over to strike the huge gong. The rest of the band constantly kids Underwood, chuckling at each other and looking at her lewdly. At one point Zappa informs us that Ruth is about to do something amazing. After a few minutes in which every eye in the gym is glued upon her, Zappa tells us to "stop looking at Ruth, she's shy." All kidding aside, Underwood is the strongest musician in the lineup.

The Zappa voice is used to excellent advantage on "I Am the Slime," a song from their new album. After a couple of verses, telling us how he is a tool of the government, vile, disgusting, and irresistible, he sings "Have you guessed it yet? I'm the slime that comes from your TV set." Wow. Besides its lyric power, tile song contains great keyboard work by George Duke and a guitar excursion by Zappa.

Duke tries out his voice on "Inca Roads," a song about flying saucers. His voice is very pleasing and he proves himself capable of handling some very difficult passages. Bassist Tom Fowler wakes up to play a solo on this song. Trombonist Bruce Fowler also takes his turn at the spotlight. The song finally ends after a couple of pseudo-endings, and the band says goodnight.

They come out again and do a nice encore, with some more great guitar playing. "Your eight closest relatives, the Mothers" – still the greatest classical orchestra in rock.

1. In December 1, 1973, Zappa & The Mothers had two concerts in Stony Brook. Article is reviewing first, "early" show. See FZShows for playlists.

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