Rant ‘N’ Roll: Zappa Plays Zappa

STROUDSBURG, PA—The Sherman Theater is right next door to the hippest record shop in the Poconos, Main Street Jukebox, and down the street from the hippest bookstore ever, Carroll & Carroll. Perusing the tomes there, you might have to listen to Mr. Carroll’s unending monologue on obscure literary finds, but Mrs. Carroll will smile and demurely take your money. There’s a hookah café, a few good bars and a functional restaurant or two. I mention all this because the Sherman Theater always has such good stuff that it pays to get there early to be able to park on Main Street and do the avenue before settling into this venue with the walloping sound, yet small enough where every seat is good.

Frank Zappa [1940-1993] was a musical provocateur who even confounded his own fans. Hippie Hero that he was when he testified before Congress against warning labels on records, he also fused the genres together including hard rock, avant-garde jazz, extreme comedy and social commentary. Oftentimes, he’d change time signatures not only in the same song but in the same measure! This obviously makes his music extremely hard to play. Albums like Sleep Dirt (1972) and The Grand Wazoo (1978) are etched in this reporter’s brain despite only discovering them posthumously.

Dweezil Zappa, 45, has painstakingly notated every inch of his father’s music. He’s surrounded himself with a band that can pull off the improbable. This is a stunning sextet that can stop on a dime, back up, stutter, start racing, stop again, and shoot off in wildly unpredictable rivers of sound. Even if you’re not familiar with the root, this tree is strong, impressive, its parts riveting both sonically and visually.

Powerhouse drummer Ryan Brown can change directions in a micro-second. Bassist Kurt Morgan flits around the stage in his shorts, sneakers, dress shirt and tie, pogo dancing with sexy keyboardist Scheila Gonzalez who you can’t take your eyes off while she alternates between organ, saxophone, clarinet, flute, tambourine and kazoo. On the other side of the stage is Ben Thomas, an incredible musician on keyboards, xylophone and trumpet. He’s the singer and can approximate the different voicings that Frank had in his head when he composed this crazy-ass music. There was no precedent for it when it came out and there certainly hasn’t been anybody to equal it since.

For the 40th anniversary of Frank’s 1975 One Size Fits All album, they did it up righteously in its entirety, no small feat. I dare say the old man himself couldn’t do it this good. Bandleader Dweezil, though, in keeping his father’s music alive for new generations (since 2006), has added some definite jazz-rock fusion jams to the mix that are certainly still in keeping with Frank’s vision. (Did I mention third keyboardist Chris Norton?)

“My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama” got the biggest ovation. This band likes to jam. Two and a half hours after they started, as I made my way to the exit, forced to leave by my #1 who had had enough, my ears were ringing, my head was spinning, my bladder complaining, but they were still going strong.

Zappa Plays Zappa will perform in Asbury Park at The Stone Pony on Sept. 18 and in Atlantic City at Harrah’s on Sept. 20. Upcoming at the Sherman Theater is Dokken/Warrant/Firehouse Aug. 22, Asleep At The Wheel Sept. 24, Pink Talking Fish (“A Fusion Of Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish”) Sept. 25, Bell Bottom Blues (Eric Clapton Tribute Band) Sept. 26, Jay & The Americans Oct. 9, The Garcia Project Oct. 10, Kansas Oct. 11, Indigo Girls Oct. 24 and Hot Tuna Nov. 29.