Dweezil Zappa’s emotional, amazing tribute to Frank Zappa

Kurt E. Johnson
Dweezil Zappa led an emotional, intricate tribute to his father at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on April 28.
Tahoe Onstage photos by Kurt E. Johnson

Hey musicians: Are you ready to be humbled? Hey music lovers: Are you ready to be jaw droppingly amazed? Go see Dweezil Zappa and his band. That will do the trick.

Why don’t you hear many bands covering Frank Zappa? Because his music is too intricate for most musicians to play, and it’s a little out there for some people’s taste.

Kurt E. Johnson
Kurt Morgan knows the licks.
Kurt E. Johnson / Tahoe Onstage

The music of Frank Zappa is not your typical rock and roll. Not even close. It’s closer to jazz or avant-garde. The band started its April 28 show at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe with five selections from Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut release, “Freak Out!” That set the tone for a truly atonal evening. To bring the groundbreaking nature of this album into focus you only need to know that the top 10 songs of 1966 included “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Cherish,” “Reach Out And I’ll Be There” and who can forget the Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville.” Compare those to Zappa’s “Who Are The Brain Police?” and you see somebody who was marching to the beat of a different drummer.

The South Shore Room was the site for “50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F@%k He Wants – The Cease and Desist Tour 2017.” (There’s a story there; Google it.)

The musical skills required to pull off the re-creation of these songs is of the highest level. The core of this band (Dweezil, of course, Ryan Brown on drums, and Kurt Morgan on bass) is an amazingly tight trio. For “Apostrophe,” it stripped it down to this trio on stage, blowing your hair back. It was an astonishing seven-minute presentation, complete with solos by all three players. Incredible, to say the least.

These songs are not 1-4-5 rock or blues progressions that can be worked out in an evening. These are what I would call through-composed (having a compositional structure that is not based on repeating sections of music; specifically, of a song with stanzas having regular meter and rhyme but different music for each stanza). Maybe that’s a liberal interpretation, but they are of a highly technical and written out nature.

Band members included the aforementioned Morgan on bass guitar and vocals, and Brown on drums. These two talented players have been working with Dweezil for many years, as have Chris Norton on keyboards, Scheila Gonzalez on sax, flute, keyboards and vocals, and Chris Martin on keyboards and vocals. New to the mix since I last saw the band in 2015 are David Luther on saxophones, guitar, and deep, deep Frank-type vocals, and Cian Coey on vocals, percussion and a little guitar. This girl could sing all the challenging parts in these Zappa tunes. Her looks were deceiving. She appears to be a lovely demure little thing, but belts out vocals like Janice Joplin or Grace Slick with all the soul of Aretha Franklin.

David Luther and Cian Coey
Kurt E. Johnson / Tahoe Onstage

After finishing the set with “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” they left the stage for a much longer period of time than your normal encore interlude. It was funny to hear the roars, clapping and foot stomping in the room start to fade as the aged crowd became fatigued at its efforts to bring the band back to the stage, but return it did with a three-song, 25-minute encore.

First up was a wonderful performance of “Cosmik Debris.” This was followed by the emotional high point of the evening with the slow and powerful “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” from the album “Joe’s Garage.” Dweezil introduced this by saying,  “This is pretty much my favorite song that my dad made… definitely one of the most brilliant improvisational guitar solos that’s ever been captured on a recording.” Late in the song, Dweezil started crying repeatedly wiped tears from his cheeks and eyes. It was very real and very touching. As with the last time I saw them, the show closer was the ever popular “Muffin Man.”

I can understand that this type of music isn’t for everybody. It’s a lot to absorb and comprehend. When I was in college as a music major, Zappa was a respected writer and his shows were acceptable as part of the required events to attend in fulfillment of your major. This was a musician’s show, for sure. My thanks to Dweezil and his band for carrying the torch for the next generation to hear this music live.

Zappa and company have been in our area four times since 2009, so if you missed this show, you’ll have another chance. Take advantage of it. You won’t regret it.

    Help, I’m A Rock
    It Can’t Happen Here
    You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here
    How Could I be Such A Fool
    Who Are The Brain Police?
    Selections From 200 Motels
    Flower Punk
    Black Napkins
    Apostrophe Teen-Age Wind
    Zomby Woof
    You Are What You Is
    The Illinois Enema Bandit
    Cosmik Debris
    Watermelon in Easter Hay
    Muffin Man
    Dweezil Zappa
    Scheila Gonzalez
    Ryan Brown
    David Luther
    Kurt Morgan
    Cian Coey
    Chris Norton

    Photo by Kurt E. Johnson
    Dweezil Zappa in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe’s South Shore Room on Friday, April 28.
    Kurt E. Johnson / Tahoe Onstage
    Kurt E. Johnson
    Scheila Gonzalez on saxophone.
    Kurt E. Johnson / Tahoe Onstage
    Kurt E. Johnson
    Ryan Brown on drums.
    Kurt E. Johnson / Tahoe Onstage

    Kurt E. Johnson
    David Luther and Chris Martin.
    Kurt E. Johnson

ABOUT Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage
Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.


2 Responses

  1. Excellent article. Glad to see Dweezil can afford to add a couple more musicians to the band. He needs a marimba player. My wife & I had guitar lessons (as part of a small group) form Dweezil when he played in Concord, NH. He is a gentleman of the highest order. A young boy was part of the lesson group, a recovering cancer patient. Dweezil invited him up on stage that night during the concert and had him play. Dweezil has a very big heart.

  2. This article hits the nail on the head. I saw the soundcheck and the show in January in Knoxville, TN and I believe it’s the best show I’ve ever seen in my 61 years. I’m a good musician, but these folks are amazing musicians. I’m glad to see Kurt getting a shoutout. I was able to chat with him a little bit and he’s a really nice guy. And the sax solos on Black Napkins gave me mountain-high goose bumps.

    I know Zappa isn’t for everyone. But if you can appreciate talent and fantastic musicianship, this is a must see.

    Nick McCabe, you’ve done the show justice in this article. Kudos to you!

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