From the extensive archive, Zappa vault-meister Joe Travers (Dweezil’s drummer) investigated some shows performed in his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, and quickly deemed them too good not to release. The 1974 concerts feature some of Zappa’s top-flight musicians of the day playing a selection of equally top tunes ranging from early Mothers to ‘Over-Nite Sensation’ and ‘Apostrophe’ material. For many this was Zappa’s most creatively fertile period, he was firing out albums like a man possessed.
The first two of this six-disc boxset are the Edinboro State College show, with amongst others George Duke and Don Preston on keyboards, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Bruce Fowler on brass, and Chester Thompson on drums. Some outstanding performances ensue and the guitar soloing of Frank himself flies into trancendental territory. ‘Cosmic Debris’ alone is worth the entrance fee, but there are also inspired versions of ‘Inca Roads’, ‘Montana’ and ‘More Trouble Every Day’. There are even some lovely renditions of ‘Freak Out/Only in it For the Money’ classics like, ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ and ‘Hungry Freaks, Daddy’.
Discs three and four taken from the Gannon Auditorium feature insane keyboard gymnastics from George Duke on ‘Get Down’, a playful version of ‘Stink-Foot’ that jumps effortlessly between banter and virtuosity, and other jaw-dropping delights (Echidna’s Arf (Of You) and ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ are like proto-Cardiacs). The sound quality and level of musicianship are of the stratospheric heights one has grown to expect of Mr Zappa, but still at times it’s so brain-meltingly good that you could weep not to have been there. Maybe a bunch of 70s student dropouts thought music would always be this fantastic and took it in their stoned stride, and maybe now they’re scratching their heads in re-evaluation and wondering how to explain it to the kids. Disc three terminates with a slightly laid-back ‘Dinah-Moe Humm’ that bigs up its funky side, attempts a failed communal orgasm from the crowd, but grooves and frugs away undeterred.
Some crowd control issues aside and repeat showings of songs from earlier discs (though these reworkings reveal just how versatile and unique a song can be from its incarnation performed a mere few days earlier in these skilled hands), disc four features a delightful ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ that culminates in St Alphonzo vibraphone acrobatics courtesy of Ruth Underwood, and jazzy pancake oblivion.
Fast-forward two years and there are some line-up changes for discs five and six, recorded at Erie’s County Fieldhouse (along with some bonus tracks from Toledo and Montreal), with Terry Bozzio, Ray White and Lady Bianca (providing vocals and keyboards but quitting after a month). Now ‘Zoot Allures’, ‘Sheik Yerbhouti’ and others have entered the oeuvre, so we get fine renditions of ‘The Torture Never Stops’, ‘City of Tiny Lights’ and ‘Wind Up Working in a Gas Station’.
‘Black Napkins’ opens disc six and epitomises the “sit back and relax, we ain’t going anywhere yet” ethos that marked Zappa shows, clocking in at just under nineteen minutes, veering from laid back to Eddie Jobson’s violin workouts, that rise and fall in intensity. Once the guitar takes over we’re in a zen-like prosaic past that’s the antithisis of today’s fast-food/fast thrill/clickbait culture. You could fall into the gap between notes and raise a family. Sure enough things pick up in intensity but in this fast-paced world Zappa’s teasing guitar foreplay can’t happen slowly enough (there’s another version of ‘Black Napkins’ on this disc from Toledo but I can’t bring myself to listen to it just yet, I’ll save it for another occasion, this one has wiped me out but feel free to write in).
‘Camarillo Brillo’ delivers as it should, segueing effortlessly into ‘Muffin Man’, which kicks Led Zeppelin’s ass out of the ballpark when it feels like it, despite being about baked goods.
The whole thing comes in a lovely boxset with a poster and extensive notes, and while not cheap, I’m seriously contemplating what I can sell to possess one.
This stuff has been sitting in a vault for more than forty years, and as a time-capsule, if you’re a Zappa fan it will make your hair stand on end. If you’re a modern musician of the auto-tune variety you will in all likelihood never hear it, but that little part of you that keeps you awake at night is probably secretly wishing it had stayed right where it was.
Erie is out now on Zappa Records