For much of the world, Dec. 21 means four days until Christmas. But if you live in Baltimore, it has become Frank Zappa Day — a posthumous honor bequeathed by the city that was the birthplace of the great guitarist, composer and social critic.
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While we were buried in 11th-hour holiday stress-fests, Frank Zappa Day 2009 saw the release of a wonderful archival recording titled philly '76 that highlights one of the least-chronicled phases of the great Zappa's touring career.
Recorded at The Spectrum, which closed in October, the performance on philly '76 was nine days after Zappa's album Zoot Allures was released. It matches him with a fearsome sextet — a vastly smaller unit than many of Zappa's touring bands — that included future prog-pop stylists Eddie Jobson on keyboards, Patrick O'Hearn on bass and Terry Bozzio on drums. The show also was part of the first tour to feature longtime Zappa stage foil and co-guitarist Ray White, and a young gospel-based singer by the name Bianca Odin, a catalyst for much of the jocularity on philly '76.
Odin, for instance, translates the murky 1973 rocker Dirty Love into a bit of Sly Stone-style funk pumped up to near-disco levels by Bozzio. A similar sense of sass dominates the vocal dervishes that drive the Zoot Allures joy ride Wind Up Workin' in a Gas Station.
Needless to say, Zappa himself is clearly the point of fascination here. His lighter moments, brushed with cynicism as they are, become almost vaudevillian, as in a spoken reverie about God's "first mistake" (The Poodle Lecture) and the 1970 rock 'n' roll union manifesto Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink. And then there is the cover of the 1957 Cadets doo-wop hit Stranded in the Jungle, which finds Zappa and his funky choristers in full song-and-dance mode before toppling headfirst into the Zoot Allures pop-soul of Find Her Finer.
For many, though, the strength of any Zappa live set hinges on the quality and quantity of guitar work. On philly '76 we get 19 glorious minutes of Black Napkins. Zappa's introduction about playing the piece days earlier on The Mike Douglas Show suggests more levity. But what follows is a slow, solemn and meditative groove and a head-spinning solo by Jobson on violin before Zappa picks up the guitar and sends the tune to the heavens.
OK, so Dec. 21 has passed. And we don't live in Baltimore. But spend some serious time with philly '76, and any day can be Frank Zappa Day.
The recording is available primarily through mail order. For information, go to www.zappa.com.
Walter Tunis, contributing music writer