Frank Zappa & The Mothers – Roxy, The Movie
Reviewed by Roy Trakin.
Frank Zappa & the Mothers, Roxy: The Movie (Eagle Rock Entertainment)
Frank’s son Ahmet introduced a screening at the Egyptian of this just-released DVD/CD collection of a 1973 concert at L.A.’s Roxy as the last project he worked on with his late mom Gail, who passed away just a week before.
The show took place a little over two years after his legendary performance at the Fillmore East, where he was joined on-stage at the late show by John Lennon and Yoko, memorably covered in a bag as they jammed on “Scum Bag,” immortalized on the live album, Fillmore East – June 1971, while I, a wide-eyed 19-year-old took it all in tripping my ass off. That was the Mothers of Flo and Eddie, Ian Underwood, Aynsley Dunbar, Jim Pons, Don Preston and Bob Harris.
Filmed over the course of three nights – December 8, 9 and 10, 1973 – this long-dormant film, which was plagued by synch problems and equipment malfunctions, has been the Holy Grail for Zappatistas, featuring an entirely new lineup highlighted by the remarkable Ruth Underwood (Ian’s wife) on xylophone, marimba, vibraphone and assorted percussion, and keyboardist George Duke, along with dual drummers Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey, trombonist Bruce Fowler, beatifically grinning multi-instrumental woodwind player Napoleon Murphy, trombonist Bruce Fowler and bassist Tom Fowler.
The long-delayed release is a revelation for a number of reasons, not least of all Frank’s remarkable guitar-playing, a cacophony of jazz-inflected riffs, that sly smile plastered across his face as he chain-smoked cigarettes (a grisly reminder of his early death from prostate cancer).
The band opens with “Cosmik Debris” and “Penguin in Bondage,” in which he touts the benefits of electric vibrators, then proceeds to flap his arms and tiptoe around stage acting out the title, before seguing into the epic percussive exploration of “Dog/Meat (The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat),” in which Frank and Ruth join together to drum up a storm in counterpoint.
Zappa is in a playful mood throughout, urging the audience to participate by crouching and jumping up in “RDNZL,” then conducting the classic finale, “Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzman’s Church),” an all-hands-on-deck freak-out and on-stage dance contest, including a bikini-clad stripper Frank claimed was imported from Edwards Air Force base, writhing onstage and wrapping her legs around him.
Watching Zappa put the ensemble through its paces, leading the chaos with military precision, every bit the legendary taskmaster as James Brown, brings to mind a single phrase he once uttered about Edgar Varese: the present-day composer refuses to die. Thanks to this lovingly restored document, that statement rings truer than ever.