Considering Frank Zappa's vast catalog of music, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person at Dodge Theatre Thursday night who was surprised when Zappa Plays Zappa's set kicked off with a Van Halen cover. After a half-hour delay reportedly due to an exhaustive sound check, Dweezil Zappa took the stage by himself a little after 8 p.m. with a Charvel Eddie Van Halen replica guitar. After sharing a story about his first meeting with Van Halen as a young boy, Dweezil proceeded to tear through a blistering rendition of Van Halen's "Eruption," setting the stage for a night of virtuosity and improvisation that proved more than worthy of the Zappa name.
Immediately after "Eruption," Dweezil was joined onstage by the other seven members of Zappa Plays Zappa for a two-hour set of classic material originally composed and performed by his late father, Frank. The opener, "Andy," showcased the soulful vocals of Ray White, who originally performed with Frank Zappa in the mid-'70s.
Dweezil clearly understands the value of surrounding himself with talented musicians. Every member of Zappa Plays Zappa got a moment in the spotlight, and none failed to impress, from the extended marimba solo by percussionist Billy Hulting to the multiple talents of Scheila Gonzalez, who played saxophone and flute as well as singing lead vocals on "Dirty Love." Dwezil is no slouch himself on the guitar. He seems to draw equally from his father's progressive, jazzy leanings to the more technically oriented style of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
In lesser hands, a penchant for distortion pedals and whammy bars could have undermined the original intent of Frank Zappa's music, but Dweezil never let needless guitar wankery get the best of him. Throughout a set that included such classics as "Peaches En Regalia," "Camarillo Brillo" and "Muffin Man," Dweezil alternated between the roles of lead guitarist and ringleader, bantering with the audience in a timbre eerily reminiscent of his father.
Zappa Plays Zappa is not only a fitting tribute to Frank Zappa's enduring musical legacy, but a great band in its own right. This was easily the best live show I've seen in many months.
Last night: Zappa Plays Zappa at Dodge Theatre
Better than: Anyone else playing Zappa
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Personal bias: I'm a sucker for the blues, and ZPZ delivered on that front
Random detail: As I looked across a sea of bald spots, it felt nice to not be one of the "old guys" at the concert for a change
Further listening: The Mothers' Fillmore East - June 1971
By the way: I don't care how great a concert is, charging $9 for a domestic beer is just obscene