The words “hologram tour” conjure images of a cold, dystopian future. Video of the Japanese concert sensation Hatsune Miku looks a bit like a scene from Blade Runner 2049. The Tupac hologram is still surreal. And the technology could give Kiss the ability to launch final tours in every city every night into infinity, should they adopt it. One artist whom the practice makes complete sense for, though, is Frank Zappa. A few years before he died, he wrote in his autobiography that he would love to roll out what he called “Intercontinental Absurdities” — basically a touring hologram.
More than a quarter century after Zappa’s death, his dream is a reality — and a success. The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa, a revue featuring former members of his bands, launched its first tour last week, and on Wednesday, the tour hit the Paramount in Huntington, New York, located a little over an hour outside of New York City. Before the show, the street was filled with Zappa fans wearing a mix of vintage T-shirts (an older one repped the song “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” another called out Dweezil Zappa’s “Zappa Plays Zappa” shows) and the crowd of mostly older men buzzed with excitement about the prospect of the show. While a hologram performance might seem too strange to some fans (the Roy Orbison hologram has inspired some perplexed reviews), the sheer wackiness of the idea made it a hit with Zappa fans.
“Frank was the shit,” said Dave Moore, who came from Golden, Colorado, for the show (and to visit his family). He’d seen Zappa live in the Eighties. “I don’t know much about the holograms, but it’s interesting that off-the-beaten-path artists like him and Ronnie James Dio are doing them. Frank thought about this in ’87, ’88 when the book was written, so I’m sure he has something in mind.”
“It’s amazing,” another fan who called himself Jammin’ Jonny told Moore. He’d already seen the hologram spectacle twice and first saw Zappa in the Seventies. “It’s a concert, but it’s more than a concert. I think the only drawback is it’s got to be the same thing note for note. The real Frank would never play the same solo twice. But it’s incredible. If you’re a big Frank fan, you’ll cry and laugh.”
What made the concept work at the show was how it was presented with a wink. Zappa once released a live LP titled Does Humor Belong in Music? and the obvious answer was of course “yes,” something his fans have always embraced. Even though guitarist Ray White asked the crowd to suspend their disbelief at one point in the show, he didn’t need to. They were with the group at every turn. Part of that is because the band featured Zappa all-stars (Mike Keneally! Scott Thunes!) playing live with recordings of archival performances but also because the entire show was programmed with Zappa fans in mind.
For most of the concert, the hologram wasn’t even center stage; instead, the focus was on cartoons and Terry Gilliam-esque animations that played into Zappa’s lyrics. For “Montana,” a song in which Zappa fantasized about buying a dental-floss farm, the accompanying visuals looked a bit like a lyric video with dental floss spelling out some of the words and making the shape of Zappa’s iconic mustachioed face. For “Cheepnis,” Zappa was an anthropomorphic (once again mustachioed) hot dog dancing with a werewolf. Both sequences got heaps of applause and cheers. At other times, the visuals were like vignettes: During “Trouble Every Day,” Zappa’s response to Sixties race riots, they resembled the front page of a newspaper with video of him singing every so often.
When the hologram Zappa came out (usually appearing and disappearing as if by magic) it did look like you were seeing him — or someone who looked like him — from a distance. “You won’t believe it, but I’m as happy to see you guys as you are to see the show,” the spirit told the crowd. “I’m your resident buffoon and my name is Frank.” His hands work the guitar in a way that matches the notes you’re hearing, and he does “human” things like fixing his shirt during a drum solo. His visage didn’t always look like the real Zappa — in trying to conjure the look of mid-Seventies Frank, the apparition’s creators came up with something that sometimes looked a bit more like Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride — but the campy aspect of it all made it work. The only instance that didn’t seem very Zappa-esque was a sequence where Zappa was “conducting” an orchestra of bears through “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” and “Peaches en Regalia” with his back to the audience; the baton movements were anything but precise, something Zappa, a proud composer, would likely never have permitted. But that didn’t matter.
The audience embraced the ridiculousness at every turn, and the band was a hit even when they simply played Zappa’s songs unaccompanied by archival audio (“Farther O’Blivion” with its Keneally guitar showcase was a standout). At one point when Zappa’s ultra-enthusiastic son Ahmet came out to dance and testify in front of the stage, he told the audience the production had been two years in the making and asked for a show of hands of people who’d taken psychedelics beforehand, which got a decent reaction from the crowd. He said he put the spectacle together with those fans in mind. Throughout the show, though, people screamed with praise. “You’ve still got it, kid!” one fan yelled at the hologram. Many sang along with lyrics like “My balls feel like a pair of maracas” during “Why Does It Hurt.” And the whole thing got a standing ovation at the end.
As people were exiting, one fan exclaimed, “Great show, what’s the Mets score?” His happiness soon turned to anguish: “They’re losing?” Another man with a cane told anyone in shouting distance, “That was a very cool show.” And in the men’s room, people were saying that the band members should have stayed backstage and that the hologram should have been more of the star.
Outside, people were still raving about the show. “That was my first hologram,” Tony Dooly said. “The music alone was good enough. I’d go with Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa over this — that’s a phenomenal show — but hearing all the music and seeing Ray White was worth it. And I loved the visuals.”
“I had no clue what it was going to be like, with the hologram of him,” Annelie Indilla said. “But it was very visual and it sounded very good. I loved it. At first, I felt a little sad. I got a little choked up for a second, because he’s not around, but I just really liked it. It’s very unusual. It was very well done.”