Music News & Reviews

New recording scares up Frank Zappa Halloween show from 40 years ago

“You don’t want to have a regular Halloween, do you?”

So asked Frank Zappa of a New York crowd gathered 40 years ago at the long since demolished Palladium, just before launching into a bit of self-described “grand opera” titled “The Demise of the Imported Rubber Goods Mask.” The title reflects an inevitability that occurred with Zappa concerts, one that told us that some works, no matter how craftily they seemed in terms of composition or instrumental makeup, were designed for the wheels to come off. That’s what happens here and throughout the three disc performance carnival that is “Halloween 77,” the latest treasure unearthed from the seemingly bottomless vaults of the guitarist, composer and bandleader, who died in 1993.

“Halloween 77” is true to its title, chronicling the entire three hour concert staged on Halloween night on 1977, the culmination of a four-day, six-show engagement at the Palladium, with a few extras from the Oct. 30 performance filling out the third disc. For the die-hards, there is a jumbo edition containing all six shows. The three-disc version is what we’re examining here.

Zappa’s music at the time was artfully streamlined when compared to his releases with the Mothers of Invention a few years earlier. But leaning toward more mainstream rock certainly didn’t tame his lyrics, commentary or the circus-like abandon that “Halloween 77” often reflects.

The thrust of the repertoire was on then-new music that would surface in 1979 on the “Sheik Yerbouti” album. It was looser and bawdier (the unfamiliar should be warned Zappa never gave a toss about political correctness) than the more jazz-directed exactness of 1975’s “One Size Fits All.” What it did offer, in a way few Zappa concert albums suggested, was a glimpse of Northern Kentucky native Adrian Belew serving as “stunt guitarist,” meaning he played when Zappa sang and vice versa. Zappa handles the lion’s share of the soloing on “Halloween 77,” but at the halfway point during a 30-minute version of “Wild Love,” Belew lets rip a guitar line that is full of the sustained, torrential animation that would later characterize his playing with David Bowie (to whom he would defect in 1978) and especially King Crimson.

Sure, there are excesses on “Halloween 77,” especially with the disc three extras.

“Audience Participation #5,” for instance, involves dance contests and card tricks that, obviously, don’t translate on an audio recording. Then again, these performances were filmed for the cultish Zappa movie “Baby Snakes,” so they served their purpose.

But what of Halloween itself? To that end, Zappa gets the party rolling early with a 10-minute deceleration of “The Torture Never Stops.” It erupts with a wildly fluid and winding guitar solo that travels studiously over a tense, textured ensemble groove. This was Zappa’s way of showing just who was in charge of this Halloween carnival.

Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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