Zappa Musical Talents Wild, Outrageous, But Controlled

By Gene Triplett

The Oklahoman, October 15, 1981

NORMAN – Imagine a quick, dangerously intelligent animal with 16 arms, 16 legs and the head of Frank Zappa, and you would have a pretty good idea of what came alive on the Lloyd Noble Center stage Tuesday night. [1]

Seven sets of those arms and legs belonged to other band members, but their every move was orchestrated by Zappa's cunning and fertile mind.

When he wasn't wrenching aural phatasmagoria from his Gibson les Paul guitar on such electric blues crushers as 'Black Napkins," the demented maestro stood with his back to the audience and, conductor's baton in hand, guided his able sidemen through such strange and wildly complex tunes as "Uncle Meat" and "Black Lagoon."

While Zappa is best known as rock's most outrageous and merciless social satirist, his startling genius as a musician and bandleader is sorely underrated, but only by those who fail to listen to the music behind his evily hilarious lyrics.

One live performance by this brilliant maniac is a certain cure for that ill.

From the moment he strode on stage – his lean frame clad in unassuming sweat shirt and jogging pants – he was in total control of one of the tightest, most virtuosic musical units the local rock audience has ever witnessed.

The bizarre, Lewis Carroll-like imagery of "Montana" – his classic tale of a dental floss rancher who rides a pygmy pony – was executed in all its complicated, convoluted instrumental glory by the band, complete with inticate, looney vibes by percussionist Ed Mann and demented, high-pitched back-up chorus by keyboardsman Bobby Martin and guitarist Ray White.

Zappa tossed out his country-music lampoon as well, a plodding cowboy parody called "Harder Than Your Husband (to get along with)" from the new LP You Are What You Is, in keeping with his tradition of satirically skewering every new trend that comes along.

Another new tune, "Goblin Girl," began as an instrumental send-up of reggae and a lyrical dissertation on amusing sexual quirks, but quickly escalated into an extended, engrossing series of isolated, eclectic soloing by the guitarists and the two men on keyboards, Martin and Tony Mars.

An equally funny observation on sex and narcissism, "Beauty Knows No Pain," blossomed into an overpowering jazz rocker, featuring an amazingly fierce and detailed guitar duel between Zappa and Steve Vai.

Rhythm guitarist Ray White shared much of the spotlight, showing a distinctive slat toward avant-garde soul and jazz in his playing and his remarkable multi-octave vocals.

Most of his music reflects this kind of playfully aberrant behavior, but his arrangements are precise cacophony, a sort of organized bedlam that, when absorbed, reveals itself as stunningly sophisticated and ingenius. Seeing this mustached, Groucho-like, somewhat absurd figure standing in the midst of it all and waving a conductor's baton was an oddly amusing yet stirring sight to behold.

His lyrical messages – rigging everything from the bureoaucratic mentality to the phoniness of American chic – speak for themselves. He is one of the few rock experimentalists who is in total control of his creative drive.

And, early in the set, when some overly-excited fan bounced some unidentifiable object off Zappa's chest, he proved his control over the audience as well. With a curt sweep of his arm, he stopped the band in mid-song and fixed his unsettingly vulture-like glare on the crowd.

"Any more objects thrown on the stage will stop the show," he said in an ominously deep, business-like voice.

Within moments, Zappa's bodyguard, an awesome, bald-headed giant, had left his post at the side of the stage and singled out the culprit, who was promptly removed from the audience. The show resumed without further incident.

One has to respect such total command.

1. Concert in October 13, 1981, at Lloyd Noble Center, University Of Oklahoma. No tape of this concert is known.

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