Not a show-boater, but certainly a masterful guitar player, Dweezil at center-stage is like the eye of the musical storm yet at the same time, the orchestrator of that storm…


Via Zammata was the name of a street in Sicily which, loosely translated, describes the sound of children’s feet playing in rain puddles – it’s also the name of Dweezil Zappa’s new album, the reason for the current tour that made its stop in New York City this past Friday night. It was the latter end of a weekend filled with rain, and even though no one on the line at The Gramercy Theatre was playing in the rain puddles, the showers didn’t dampen the spirits of hundreds of fans that gathered in anticipation of an evening of Zappa sounds of one type or another.

The Gramercy is a medium-size venue, nicely intimate, but with some stadium seating as well as standing room on the floor in front of the stage, big enough to host the big sounds made by Zappa’s six-piece band, which includes (from right to left as you look at the stage) Scheila Gonzalez (Keyboard, flute, sax and vocals), Kurt Morgan (bass, background vocals), Ryan Brown (drums, background vocals), Chris Norton (keyboards and vocals), Ben Thomas (vocals, percussion, trumpet, guitar), and front-and-center, Dweezil Zappa, on guitar and vocals.

For the past several years, Dweezil has been touring as Zappa Plays Zappa, a concert experience faithfully recreating and serving up fresh batches of the music of his father, the late Frank Zappa. Even though this tour would feature only the younger Zappa’s work, the elephant in the concert hall – in the form of recent disputes between the Zappa Family Trust and Dweezil’s use of the family name as a musical brand – reared its head several times. Calls of both “Zappa Plays Zappa” and “Dweezil Plays Dweezil” were heard at the very beginning of the concert in support of the artist’s stance in the proceedings, drawing a wry but affable silent acknowledgement from Frank’s guitar-slinging progeny, who seemed determined not to let the subject hijack the night. Ironically enough, this was the same Friday night that premiered Marvel’s Captain America: Civil Wars, a story about another family issue of sorts, and which also seemed to inspire people to choose sides. At any rate, tonight we were all team Dweezil…

The sextet was versatile enough to handle the diverse sounds of Dweezil’s music, which ranged from the Beatle-esque progressive pop of “Truth” to the mock-metal of “Dragon Master,” both from Via Zammata. Starting off with a song that Dweezil co-wrote with Steve Vai at the age of twelve, “My Mother is a Space Cadet,” the balance of the set list consisted of songs from various stages of his career, concentrating on the fine new album, Via Zammata …with diversions, of course.  

Between songs, the band played bits of musical treasures from our collective pop culture, such as the themes from Entertainment Tonight, Beverly Hills Cop, and The Great American Hero. The band also effortlessly dropped in bits of “The Heat is On,” “Africa,” “Oh Yeah,” and “Careless Whisper,” between songs, fading out for the next ‘real’ song at the hand of the talented Scheila Gonzalez. Gonzalez, by the way, is a vital part of the stage ambiance, dancing, playing, singing and keeping the mood fresh and invigorated, communicating with the rest of the band and playing to and with the audience. Kurt Morgan is impeccable on bass and does an excellent job anchoring the music along with Brown, who’s a powerhouse drummer (his foot-pedal went right through the head of the kick-drum part-way into the show). Chris Norton fills in layers of sound at the keyboards and also contributes a powerful high tenor vocal when called on (he was featured singing the key lines of “I Will Always Love You” in a later medley of 80s hits – more on that later). Ben Thomas, when he’s not playing guitar, trumpet or percussion, is a versatile and expressive vocalist, using every bit of energy in his face and body to get a lyric across.

Then, of course, there’s Dweezil Zappa. Dweezil is as amiable as his famous father was …let’s say somewhat disaffected by things. One gets the impression that Dweezil gets immense satisfaction out of playing this music and is not easily disgruntled. Like his father, he’s not a premier vocalist yet his singing is always in key, pleasant to listen to, and more than able to do what’s needed in the context of songs that demand tight vocal harmonies (Dweezil introduced one song as sounding like “a combination of The Bulgarian Women’s Choir and The Beach Boys.”). He’s also a stunning guitarist, the master of several styles of playing and intimately connected to the fretboard. Not a show-boater, Dweezil at center-stage is like the eye of the musical storm, yet at the same time, the orchestrator of that storm. The music from Via Zammata is tinged with pop, informed by classic rock, and delightfully infected by the eclectic music of Frank himself.

Dismissing the inevitable artificially-induced encore, Zappa and his band launched into an extended medley of songs mostly from the 80’s – 139 of them. That’s right, you heard right – 139 songs all represented in one marathon medley, with all of the twists and turns and rhythmic gymnastics you can imagine it would take. It was astounding. It was also a lot of fun – kind of like kids playing in a rain puddle.

  • Words and pictures: Bert Saraco / Express Image Photography
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