The Frank Zappa archive has opened wide in recent years; the past twelve months alone have seen such diverse releases as The Mothers 1971, the 50th anniversary edition of 200 Motels, and Zappa '88: The Last U.S. Show. The latest addition to the canon (or Official Release Series No. 122, for those keeping count) has recently arrived from Zappa Records and UMe. Zappa/Erie premieres three full shows from the Erie, Pennsylvania area (including Edinboro, some eighteen miles outside of Erie) plus a handful of bonus tracks from other locales including Toledo, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and most far-flung, Montreal, Canada. The set boasts over seven hours of music, of which only 10 minutes has ever been officially released.
The first concert, May 8, 1974, fills the first two discs of the box set. The show was part of a month-long run marking the tenth anniversary of The Mothers of Invention as well as the recent release of Apostrophe ('). The ensemble that took the stage at Edinboro Stage College was one of Zappa's most jazz-oriented bands, with the Fowler brothers Tom (bass), Walt (trumpet), and Bruce (trombone) joined by keyboardist George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock (woodwinds), Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson (drums/percussion), and longtime Zappa regulars Don Preston (synthesizer/organ) and Jeff Simmons (guitar). The horn section beefed up the Zappa sound, and the bandleader was sure not to let them go to waste.
While this setlist has less emphasis on the scatological songs and skits of the Flo and Eddie period (see Mothers 1971), there's something for all strains of Zappa fans in this concert: plenty of Varese-inspired jazz ("Dupree's Paradise" is stunning, especially the contributions of the horn section and of course, Zappa, whose guitar rarely remains earthbound) and satirical songs, too. The show opens with band introductions, a droll Q&A, and stage announcements before getting to the music, and Craig Parker Adams' mix puts the listener there. It's clear that this band cooks, with a loose, inviting, and altogether muscular sound.
Surprisingly, there's not too much from Apostrophe ('). Zappa's most successful U.S. album, it proved to be his only LP to make the top ten of the Billboard 200. Though Brock, Duke, and Bruce and Tom Fowler all played on it, Zappa preferred at this point to concentrate more on reimagining older compositions and stretching out with his ever-ambitious new works. Apostrophe (')'s Side One closer "Cosmik Debris" (also released as the B-side to the novelty-esque "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow") was stretched from the album's compact four minutes to over twelve, with tasty solos ferociously leaning into the song's blues feel.
Napoleon Murphy Brock, on vocals, led a trilogy of three tunes: the funky "Pygmy Twylyte," We're Only In it for the Money's "The Idiot Bastard Son," and the B-movie spoof "Cheepnis." On "Inca Roads" (later to appear on 1975's One Size Fits All), the band deftly navigated its frequent time signature changes and prog-meets-samba groove with virtuosity and increasing intensity. The audience responded quite appreciatively to the introduction of "Montana" ("a song about dental floss") from Over-Nite Sensation, giving Zappa another opportunity to cut loose on guitar and make a dirty rock-and-roll noise. One can also hear the influence of Flo and Eddie on the vocals' high harmonies. (Tina Turner, The Ikettes, and Kin Vassy joined FZ on the album version.)
"Dupree's Paradise," which hadn't yet appeared on an album, lasted a whopping 36+ minutes before Zappa and company launched into a barrage of shorter songs, primarily from the '60s. George Duke's spacey synth and light touch on the keys anchors "Dupree's" and indeed, much of the set. "You want cocktail lounge music, we'll give it to you," Zappa quips during the extended "Dupree's" introduction as Walt Fowler sets the mood with his trumpet; the composer used the framework of the song to allow for solo improvisations in this light, groovy vein. Much later he would rework "Dupree's" for conductor Pierre Boulez, underlining its fusion of jazz, classical, and rock motifs.
The crowd-pleasing second half ("Nothing but old songs for the rest of the show!") offered material from Freak Out!, We're Only in It for the Money, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. The band captured the gleefully anarchic spirit of "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and put real feeling into "How Could I Be Such a Fool," one of the rare, mostly straightforward Zappa love songs. "Wowie Zowie," once described by its composer as "harmless" and "cheerful," remains both. "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" rewarded those listening closely with its conceptual continuity links to "The Idiot Bastard Son."
The set skips gleefully from mood to mood. The Edinboro performances of the Nixon-skewering "Son of Orange County" and "More Trouble Every Day" made their way to Roxy & Elsewhere, with the latter song updated from the track "Trouble Every Day" on Freak Out! On the former, the lyrics are a mere set-up to the instrumental pyrotechnics led by FZ's guitar which is presented unedited for the first time. While all three concerts on Zappa/Erie have something to offer, the first is the most consistently engaging and altogether enthralling.
By the time of the November 12, 1974 show at Erie's Gannon Auditorium (CDs 3-4) some six months later, Zappa's band was stripped down: six players (including Frank) from ten. The Fowler brothers Bruce and Walt were out, leaving just Napoleon on woodwinds and no brass. Jeff Simmons, Don Preston, and Ralph Humphrey were gone, but veteran Mother Ruth Underwood was back on percussion. The sound and feel of the band were very different, as was the repertoire. Chester Thompson held down the drum kit, but the inventive two-drummer charts of the previous concert were history.
The marvel of much of the instrumental music heard in this Erie set is that it's not rock, it's not jazz, it's not modern classical, but rather a combination of the three as filtered through the composer's singular sensibility. A mere few songs remained from the earlier setlist, all in the second half of the show: "I'm Not Satisfied," "Montana," both parts of "Dupree's Paradise," and the trilogy of "Oh No"/"Son of Orange County"/"More Trouble Every Day." Though this material was the same, the performances were not; Zappa the bandleader adapted the arrangements for the smaller band, often transforming the musical character of each piece to accommodate the line-up's particular strengths.
That this show went on at all is a minor miracle as Zappa was stricken with the flu and acknowledged his ailment from the stage. That didn't stop him from leading the proceedings with customary, winking gusto, whether on Apostrophe (')'s absurdist "Stink-Foot" or "RDNZL," featuring Underwood on marimba and some truly raunchy guitar. An energetic and rollicking "Village of the Sun" opened another "suite" of fresh material from the eclectic composer also including "Echnidna's Arf" and "Don't You Ever Watch That Thing?" (The three pieces first appeared on Roxy and Elsewhere - not in these versions - which was released in September 1974, just a couple of months prior to the concert.)
Perhaps already moody due to the flu, Zappa firmly admonished the unruly and disruptive audience to sit down during "Penguin in Bondage" and "Building a Girl." The show is also notable for its unique live arrangement of Over-Nite Sensation's "Dinah Moe-Humm" (one of FZ's most puerile songs) and its selections from Uncle Meat ("Uncle Meat," "The Dog Breath Variations").
The final full-length concert on Zappa/Erie (CDs 5 & 6) was taped over two years later at the Erie County Fieldhouse on November 12, 1976 with a vastly different line-up of Ray White (guitar), Eddie Jobson (keyboards/violin), Patrick O'Hearn (bass/vocals), Terry Bozzio (drums/vocals), and Lady Bianca Thornton (keyboards/vocals). (This concert is intact except for "City of Tiny Lites" which has been patched in from the next evening's show in Toledo, Ohio because of numerous lyric errors sung in Erie.) A blizzard kept the band's lighting and sound systems from arriving at the venue, but in "the show must go on" fashion, they proceeded with rented equipment.
The raucous Erie crowd was at it again, too; Zappa made it clear during the opening "The Purple Lagoon" that audience members down front should sit down so that all in the auditorium could enjoy the performance. "Stink-Foot" started the show in earnest on a light note, with the bandleader asking a girl in the audience to kiss a plaster foot.
As always, Zappa challenged his audience with new material. Zoot Allures was freshly released just a month before the concert; "Wind Up Workin' in a Gas Station," "The Torture Never Stops," "Wonderful Wino," and "Black Napkins" were all played from that album. The concert's (mostly) instrumental showpiece was the hypnotic, slow-burning "Black Napkins," extended from a mere four minutes on Zoot to nearly nineteen here. (It's followed by solos for Bozzio and O'Hearn.) But there were oldies and fan favorites, too, such as Freak Out!'s "You Didn't Try to Call Me;" Chunga's Revenge's goofy "Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" and driving "Would You Go All the Way;" and "Dinah Moe-Humm." Zappa and co. paid affectionate tribute to his beloved '50s R&B and doo-wop with a fun romp through The Cadets' "Stranded in the Jungle."
Lady Bianca's presence most distinguishes the show; in addition to her distinctive vocalizing on "Black Napkins," she brings fire and swagger to Over-Nite Sensation's funky "Dirty Love" and pure soul to a taut "You Didn't Try to Call Me." (The blues singer-musician would leave Zappa's organization one week after the concert, having spent just a month on the road, due to increasing discomfort both with the material and the audience behavior.) In addition to his drum prowess, Terry Bozzio brought his own gutsy vocals to lead the riff-rock, Zappa-style, of "Tryin' to Grow a Chin" which wouldn't appear on an FZ record until 1979's double album Sheik Yerbouti.
A few strong bonus cuts have been peppered throughout the box set, among them Zappa's own original mixes of two songs from Notre Dame on May 12, 1974 ("Montana," "Get Down") and songs from Montreal on November 10, 1976 ("You Didn't Try to Call Me" in its last performance by Lady Bianca preserved in Zappa's vault) and Toledo on November 13 (a shorter "Black Napkins," "The Purple Lagoon (Outro)").
Zappa/Erie has been produced by Ahmet Zappa and Vaultmeister Joe Travers. The set is in hardcover book format, with the six CDs in slots on the endpapers. The 24-page book contains essays by Travers and Erie, PA music historian Dan Schell plus photos, memorabilia, and artwork by Fantoons Animation Studio filled with "Easter eggs" related to Zappa's discography. Zappa/Erie holds special meaning for Travers, whose hometown is Erie. While the discovery that the Vault contained these hometown shows may have made their release a priority for Travers, the significance of the concerts within Zappa's career makes this set a valuable document for fans and collectors alike. The audio for the set was professionally recorded on four-track tape by Zappa's team of engineers Bill Hennigh, Brian Krokus, Davey Moire, and Claus Weideman, and newly mixed from the original tapes for detailed, present, you-are-there sound by Craig Parker Adams and mastered by John Polito at Audio Mechanics.
It's unlikely that Zappa/Erie would make an ideal introduction for those unfamiliar with the twists and turns of the Zappa canon. But for those aficionados wishing to discover the intricacies of these three particular bands at one of the most creatively fertile times of the artist's career, this fascinating set is rich with treasures.
Zappa/Erie is available now: