So you know how Muslims are supposed to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives? Well, if music is my religion (and many who know me would agree that it is), I may have to start making regular pilgrimages to Dr. Tony Shore’s music room.
Yes, the man has an entire room set aside for music, for the collected spoils of decades of obsessive fandom. Three of the four walls are covered, floor to ceiling, in CDs, be they singles, albums or box sets. His closet is stuffed with vinyl and other collectibles. He has pictures of himself with his heroes, and framed gold albums that he worked on and helped promote during his years in the music industry.
I could have spent all weekend in there, easy, just pulling out and listening to the albums I hadn’t heard. (Thousands of them – there’s nothing like finding an even more obsessive music fan to drive home just how much you have to learn and hear.) But that wasn’t why I was there.
No, Dr. Shore and his wife Sara graciously opened their home to me for two reasons – Frank Zappa and Jars of Clay. It’s not often that you find a fan of both FZ and Jars, since they seem to operate on opposite ends of the musical and lyrical spectrum, which makes Dr. Shore and I two specimens of a rare breed. So I made the six-hour trek to Minnesota last weekend to join the good doctor and revel in our shared love of all kinds of music, and to see two concerts that undoubtedly drew none of the same fans, except us.
Zappa was first – the aptly named Zappa Plays Zappa show at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. First of all, it’s a beautiful venue, just breathtaking. Every major city should have at least one old stage-show theater like this, perfectly preserved and ornate while still being cozy. It’s the kind of place that elevates the artistic merit of whatever’s being performed on stage, and encourages people to remain seated, which is exactly the way Frank Zappa liked it.
How to explain Frank Zappa’s music to people who’ve never heard it? His work was complex (some would say impossible), yet earthy. He was a master of many different styles of composition, and he combined them all – he brought jazz structures to rock music, composed orchestral pieces and then transformed them into guitar workouts, took everyday events from the lives of those around him and crafted progressive epics about them, and slathered everything with a crude sense of comedy and attitude. He was a rock star with the brain of Stravinsky, and a guitar player the likes of which the world has rarely seen.
Zappa died of cancer in 1993, 17 days shy of his 53rd birthday. In his wake, he left one of the most extensive and rewarding catalogs in modern music, spanning more than 60 albums in fewer than 30 years. I am one of those Zappa fans who feels that it’s all worth hearing, that it all contributes to one long, cohesive album (a phenomenon Zappa called “conceptual continuity”). Zappa never got his due as a composer, and I think it’s because he never adopted a self-serious attitude about his work. Even his magnum opus, a two-hour orchestral piece called Civilization Phaze III, is about people living inside a piano and talking about pigs and ponies.
But if you want a case for why Frank Zappa should be revered, you couldn’t do much better than catching a Zappa Plays Zappa show. This is Frank’s son Dweezil’s labor of love, his way of turning more people onto his father’s genius. It’s three hours and 20 minutes (at least, the show I saw) of Zappa songs, played to perfection by an incredible band, and featuring some special guests. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
There were two things I worried about before seeing the show. First, I was afraid that Dweezil and his band would pick the easiest numbers, and we’d get an evening of “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Camarillo Brillo.” Not so. While they didn’t get into “Sinister Footwear” or “G-Spot Tornado” or anything like that, the band did bite into some seriously difficult pieces, like “Inca Roads” and the great “Cheepnis.” They did the “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” suite, but skipped all the easy parts, diving right into “Father O’Blivion.” I could not have been happier with the song selection.
My second worry was Dweezil himself. For whatever reason, I’ve never had much time for Dweezil Zappa. I’ve heard his five solo albums (including the decent new one, Go With What You Know), and his two records with Z, featuring his brother Ahmet. But I’ve never thought him up to the level of his father, and hence dismissed him, without really considering that very few people are up to Frank’s level.
But man, this was a whole new Dweezil. His guitar playing was perfect, especially in the long solo sections, and his skill as a bandleader was extraordinary. While Frank’s shows had a hint of a sneer to them each time out, Dweezil, with his laid-back demeanor, fostered an atmosphere of love for the music, and it was contagious. There are three guitar pieces that Frank bequeathed to Dweezil upon his death, requesting that no one else play them. Dweezil performed one of them that night, the bluesy “Black Napkins,” and if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine Frank up on stage, so exact was the tone and phrasing.
In short, Dweezil did a swell job – reverent and exacting and still boatloads of fun.
But the special guests made the evening. On vocals for most of the show was Napoleon Murphy Brock, the voice of the early 1970s Mothers of Invention. Brock sang and played flute on some of Zappa’s most beloved albums, including Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All. The man has to be in his 60s, but he was a boundless reserve of energy, and he hasn’t lost a note. His voice was crystal clear the whole night, and he performed some of Zappa’s trickiest vocal pieces (like the first half of “Inca Roads”) brilliantly. And, he never stopped moving.
Roughly halfway through the show, Terry Bozzio made his way out. This guy’s a legend, one of the finest drummers you’ll ever hear – he played this massive drum kit that encircled him on all sides, little toms and cymbals surrounding him. And as he did with Zappa’s bands, not only did Terry play like a madman, but he sang lead vocals while doing so. I was stunned to hear a full rendition of “Punky’s Whips,” one of the most difficult pieces of Zappa’s late-‘70s canon. It’s a labyrinthine piece of work, on which Bozzio sang and played up a storm.
And then there was Steve Vai. I’ve never seen Vai play before, but he’s been one of my favorite guitarists since I was 15. No one plays like Vai. His tone is otherworldly, and he’s able to make his six-string (and sometimes seven-string) talk, sing, wail and weep. He came out to help perform “The Black Page,” a percussion-led piece that got its name from the amount of notes on the sheet music – it looked like a black page. Needless to say, it’s nearly impossible to play correctly, but the band nailed it.
So I got to hear Steve Vai and Dweezil Zappa trade leads on an extended, amazing “Montana,” and I got to hear one of my favorite (and often forgotten) Zappa tunes, “Village of the Sun.” Dweezil and the band stretched out on a 10-plus-minute “The Torture Never Stops,” and encored with “More Trouble Every Day,” which in my world is an enduring classic. And then Dweezil nearly choked up while talking about his dad and his music, then left us with “Regyptian Strut,” a fine and glorious fanfare. It was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
One thing I will say, though, is that the Zappa family could be a little better at self-promotion. Their merchandise booth held no music at all, not even the posthumous Frank albums that you can’t get from any other source. This has been a good year for Zappa fans, with the dizzying live document Imaginary Diseases, and the forthcoming four-CD Making of Freak Out box set. But the capper is Trance-Fusion, one of three records Frank finished before he died. It’s out now through the Zappa family, and you’d think that Dweezil might have mentioned that from the stage or something. But no.
Trance-Fusion was expected in stores on October 24, but it’s been pushed back to November 7 for some reason, even though it’s been finished and awaiting release for 13 years. The Zappas just this week posted information about it to their website, but it’s not comprehensive in any way. People who wander to the site and don’t know what Trance-Fusion is won’t find out from the so-called official source. Additionally, I and many others have already pre-ordered the Freak Out box set, for $75. The release date has been pushed back twice, and we still don’t even know what’s on this thing – there’s no track list available.
It’s obvious that Dweezil and the family care about Frank’s music. But they need to learn to channel that care into regular information and customer service, or the fanbase is going to go elsewhere for their Zappa fix. And we don’t want to do that. We’d rather buy it from the family, especially a family that creates something as magical and loving as the Zappa Plays Zappa show.
Anyway, rant over. The next night was utterly different – we segued from the author of “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” the guy who led crowd chants of “ram it up your poop chute,” to a quartet of devout and thoughtful Christians named Jars of Clay. Jars played at Northwestern Bible College in St. Paul, a thoroughly different atmosphere than the Zappa show, but a moving one nonetheless.
Of course, Dr. Shore insisted on wearing his Zappa Plays Zappa t-shirt to the Jars show, which earned him a bunch of dirty looks. But that was okay, since Shore promoted the boys in the band when he worked for Essential Records, and he knows them pretty well. We got to slip backstage and meet the band, which was a nice experience. They seem like sweet guys.
I have a hard time explaining to people what I see in Jars of Clay. I have that same problem with most of the Christian bands I like, because people really get caught up in the Jesus angle without listening to the music. I play people Jars of Clay, and they listen for the J-word, almost hoping to be turned off by it. It’s strange, because musically, they’re a top-notch pop-rock band, and lyrically, they’re deeper and more thoughtful than 90 percent of what gets marketed as Christian music.
Case in point – backstage, the band members were complaining about a magazine review they just received, one which concentrated on the Christian angle and ignored the artistry. “You’d never hear them say, ‘You know, for an atheist, this guy plays guitar well,’” six-stringer Steve Mason said, and he’s right. It’s a strange bias, but it’s there, undeniably.
Adding insult to injury, that particular review was for Jars’ new album, Good Monsters, which is quite possibly the best thing they’ve ever done. After two records of low-key, acoustic folk-pop, Monsters is a loud, explosive piece of work, storming out of the gate with “Work” and “Dead Man,” two of the catchiest songs they’ve written. The whole thing sounds live and full of energy, more so than any previous record of theirs, and the lyrics follow suit, with tales of doubt and faith that find new ways to explore old themes.
That energy translated to the stage – they slammed through the first three tracks on Monsters right off the bat, opening with the third, a powerful rendition of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “All My Tears.” They played almost the entire new album, and the surprising highlight was the extended, poetic coda of “Oh My God,” a prayer of repentance and despair: “Hospitals that cannot treat, all the wounds that money causes, all the comforts of cathedrals, all the cries of thirsty children, this is our inheritance, all the rage of watching mothers, this is our greatest offense…”
They cranked out some old classics, of course, like “Flood” and “The Eleventh Hour,” but to be honest, the new material just blew the old stuff away. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that Jars remembered how to rock, because they have never rocked like this before. They’ve made a lot of good albums (honestly, all you doubters, they have), but Good Monsters may well be their first great one.
The biggest surprise of the night for me, however, was the opening act. The sports editor at my newspaper, Dave Parro, got me into the music of one of his friends, Matt Wertz, earlier this year. Wertz plays an amiable mix of acoustic pop and Motown soul, and he has a great voice, if a generic way with words. His new album, Everything In Between, was scheduled to come out on Nettwerk in September, and I’m not sure what happened, but it never materialized.
But lo and behold, there was Matt Wertz taking the stage before Jars, playing a strong set of fun acoustic tunes. The audience loved him, and frankly, he’s pretty lovable – he has a winning sense of himself, and a self-deprecating demeanor on stage that gets you on his side immediately. He conducted singalongs for several songs, and invited Mason on stage to join him for “Carolina.” His sweet disposition followed him off stage, where he wandered the lobby, introducing himself to people and shaking hands.
And of course, he had Everything In Between with him. It’s a short disc, barely half an hour, but it is sonically his biggest record, and his most varied. It contains “Heartbreaker,” a shuffling, bouncing song that stands as my favorite of his, but also whispery ballads like “5:19” and the closing “Capitol City.” “The Way I Feel” is soulful, while “Over You” is a straight-ahead rock song. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the album is just as likeable and pleasant as Wertz himself.
You can hear it and buy it here.
Many thanks to Dr. Tony Shore and his family for letting me stay the weekend. It was a blast. You can read the good doctor’s blog here. He said he’d have something up about the Zappa show before I did, but as of yet, no dice… But what else should I expect from a guy who won’t acknowledge Steve Hogarth’s brilliance. (“Post-Fish Marillion,” he insists on calling it…) Seriously, thanks again, Doc.
This is one of two columns I’ve posted this week. The other is a more traditional tm3am, with a review of Jeremy Enigk’s long-awaited new solo album. I’ll be back on track after that, one a week for the foreseeable future. That’s right, you’re all stuck with me…
See you in line Tuesday morning.