It’s not easy being your father’s son. This is particularly true if the father made a lasting impact that resonates long after he’s gone.
One of the reasons I never went into my father’s line of work (he was an insurance agent — and a damned good one — for New York Life for more than 30 years, and he wanted me to insure his client’s children) is I knew I could never go after it with the same level of enthusiasm he possessed. Comparisons would be made, and I would have to deal with the stigma of not measuring up. Nobody wants that.
I’ve always felt sorry for professional athletes playing the same sport their fathers did. I’m at the age where I’m seeing the next generation of ball players taking on the family business. Few live up to the legendary status of their dads, and those players fade quickly and quietly into obscurity.
It’s no different in the music world. I’ve seen second generations of Lennons, Harrisons, Cherrys and others rise slowly, and vanish just as quickly. It’s not their fault. A legendary legacy is a damned hard thing to live up to.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. There are a chosen few who can not only pick up their father’s mantle, but run with it and ultimately make it their own. Baseball’s Ken Griffey, Jr. is a fine example. So, too, is Dweezil Zappa. That was certainly the feeling I got when I stood some eight feet from the son of the legendary Frank Zappa at the Ready Room in St. Louis, Missouri on May 8. Dweezil and his incredible band were on the stretch run of the first leg of their 2018 “Choice Cuts” tour.
It’s one thing to have intimate access to the catalog of one of the most important composers of the 20th century, which Dweezil certainly does. But it is something else entirely to be able to truly play that music, which also ranks among the most intricate and complicated ever written. People who know Frank Zappa merely for novelty/comedy songs like “Valley Girl” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” owe it to themselves and the Zappas to truly study Frank’s music, and learn to appreciate its true beauty and sophistication. And because of that I can also say this: Dweezil Zappa’s show was not great simply because he is Frank’s son. Dweezil Zappa’s show was great because he and his band have become one with the compositions themselves, and have found ways to modernize those songs and attain true ownership for themselves.
There are Frank Zappa tribute bands playing throughout the world. Many of these bands feature Zappa band alums, which — to most fans — adds a level of legitimacy to the music at hand. Dweezil’s band features no alumni members. In fact, most of these musicians were probably barely out of middle or high school — if that old — when Frank died in 1993. Dweezil (lead guitar and vocals) has brought his father’s music to an entirely new generation of musicians (Scheila Gonzalez: Saxophone, keyboards, and vocals; Adam Minkoff: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards and percussion; Cian Coey: Lead Vocals and percussion; Ryan Brown: Drums and vocals; Kurt Morgan, Bass and vocals; and Chris Norton: Keyboards and vocals) who play as though the music was written for them. And in some ways, it probably was!
For nearly three-and-a-half hours, I stood transfixed with the rest of the Ready Room audience and watched these young artists provide chops to spare, particularly when it came time to overcome unforeseen technical challenges coming mainly from a faulty keyboard station computer. The band ripped and roared through 34 tunes (well, 33, as “The Purple Lagoon” provided both the intro and outro) covering the entire spectrum of Frank Zappa’s recording career. (A big “thank you” goes out to my new friend Steve Altemeyer, who kept track of and provided me with an accurate set list.) I’m as guilty as any other Zappa fan for being particularly rooted to a particular era of the Master’s music. For me, it was the Roxy era of 1972-75. And while Dweezil’s band fed my hunger for that music in the form of songs like “Andy” “Apostrophe'” “Po-jamma People,” and “Cheepnis,” they also re-opened my mind to the music of other equally thrilling periods.
It was really cool to hear fresh takes on songs like “Flakes,” “Peaches en Regalia,” “Son of Orange County,” “Cocaine Decisions,” and “Keep it Greasy” among many, many more. Even as I stood there and listened to the band before me, I was already plotting to break out my CDs (and fill in the gaps of my collection) once I left the club.
Before the first Zappa Plays Zappa tour in 2006, Dweezil reportedly spent two years re-learning to play the guitar in order to properly handle his father’s music. And let’s be clear: DZ was an astounding guitarist before then! The practice and subsequent tours have truly paid off, as Dweezil simply blazed away over the intricate, odd-metered rhythms and harmonies his band provided. Like his father, DZ has no sense of dramatic “guitar face.” The man just stands there and shreds, without a hint of melodrama or smugness.
Speaking of which, that’s another one of my new favorite things about Dweezil: his incredible ability not to call attention to himself. As I mentioned earlier, his band can flat-out play! And rather than grandstand atop their efforts, Dweezil is adept at stepping aside musically, and letting his players shine. The collective jaws of the audience could be heard hitting the floor over the musical din while Dweezil just smiled and nodded approvingly from time to time. And where Frank had a knack for the “stylish” stage outfit or two, his son couldn’t have been more low-key, sporting a blue v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers. Dweezil’s clothing and demeanor absolutely scream, “It’s not about me. It’s about the music.” To which I tip my cap.
I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will anyway: SEE THIS BAND WHENEVER YOU HAVE A CHANCE. This was one of my better recent concert experiences, on par with the Steven Wilson show I saw seven days before in Chicago. Yet I’m STILL kicking myself for missing DZ’s 2015 performance in the same room, because it featured the playing of my favorite Zappa album, One Size Fits All. Luckily, the Dallas performance from that tour is available for viewing on YouTube.
I have nothing but love and respect for the Zappa alums like Mike Keneally, Ike Willis, Don and Bunk, Andre Cholmondeley, Steve Vai, and others who continue to keep the music alive. It’s good to know they still respect Frank’s music enough to continue playing it. But the performing legacy is secure in the hands of Dweezil (whom I noted has at last graduated from calling his father “Frank” to “Dad”), who has brought the music of the great 20th century composer to an entirely new generation of fans — and more than a few of their children — which will help keep the spirit alive long after we’ve passed. With musicians like these on the planet, there’s no way we can ever forget.