The late Frank Zappa was the perfect opening act for “Zappa Plays Zappa” at New York’s Beacon Theater on Monday night. The show — a long, exhilirating tribute evening now touring the U.S. and hosted by his son, guitarist Dweezil — began with the Mother himself in vintage gig footage, leading a seven-piece band through a wild half-hour of “Montana” and conducted improvisation at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 1973. It was a vital lesson — and a sweet reminder for those of us who saw the real thing — in how the original Zappa played Zappa each night on stage: with rigorous attention to the detail in his works, total concentration when he soloed on guitar and absolute faith in the fun of anything-goes. You could actually see Frank smile in that film.
The next three-and-a-half hours were a living memorial to his monster songbag and performance aesthetic, with Dweezil fronting a big band of guitars, horns, keyboards, percussion, vibes and alumni from his dad’s Seventies and Eighties bands: guitarist Steve Vai, drummer Terry Bozzio and vocalist-saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock. In their respective readings of “Black Page,” one of Zappa’s most demanding compositions, Bozzio and Vai (the latter in duet with Dweezil) were true to the precision and emotional commitment the elder Zappa demanded of his sidemen. Brock, in his singing and loose-limbed dancing, brought out the heavy love for Fifties doo-wop and classic R&B that Frank embedded in the lacerating satire of “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” and “The Idiot Bastard Son” as well as the winding-staircase vocal melody of “Oh No.” There was even “new” music: “Imaginary Diseases,” the muscular, swinging title piece from a new CD of previously unissued Seventies material
The current U.S. leg of “Zappa Plays Zappa” ends on June 24th in San Francisco, but more dates are expected in the fall. Frank once titled a series of live releases You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore.”Zappa Plays Zappa” proves that, yes, you can — even in his absence.