Music News & Reviews

‘Road Tapes’ show Frank Zappa and band in their prime

Four years ago, the posthumous catalog of guitarist and composer Frank Zappa introduced a collection of what it dubbed “guerrilla recordings” — concert documents recorded on two- and four-track equipment, sometimes in mono. The first two editions were issued in 2012 and 2013, and were available mostly via mail order. As part of the massive Zappa reissue campaign by Universal, the first two editions of what became the Road Tapes series have now been give a proper commercial release along with a third, previously unreleased installment. Spanning three editions of Zappa’s famed Mothers of Invention band — from 1968, 1970 and 1973 — Road Tapes is a motherlode revealed.

Venue # 1, recorded in Vancouver in September 1968, represents the Mothers in its artistic prime — a feast of free-jazz improvising, rock vaudeville and seeds of what would soon emerge as Zappa’s wildly expressive and fluid guitar sound. It is also a recording of remarkably high fidelity, given the almost apologetic way the sound quality of Road Tapes has been promoted.

With the Mothers’ groundbreaking We’re Only In It For the Money just a few months old, the material heavily satirizes the hippie environment of the day. But when Zappa gives the protesting a rest and settles into the cacophony of Edgard Varese’s Octandre and the extraordinary instrumental medley of The Orange County Lumber Truck (a 20-minute mashup of pop lyricism, jazz jamming and guitar dynamics), the real fun begins.

Venue #2 heads to Helsinki in for a scrapbook of concerts from August 1973, when Zappa focused far more on ensemble tightness and a greater emphasis on jazz structure, with major contributions from renown French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and keyboardist George Duke. The more enticing moments come from Duke’s playful keyboard exploits in RDNZL, Ponty’s jagged violin swing during Dog Breath and the cartoon-like vibraphone/marimba accents throughout by Ruth Underwood.

The newly issued Venue #3 steps back to Minneapolis for two shows from July 1970. While the largely mono mix is rough on vocal clarity (the second concert sounds noticeably cleaner than the first), the set chronicles the early days of the Mothers lineup that featured singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan from the Turtles, before the band became a traveling carnival act. The largely streamlined presentation revisits a lot of early Zappa material, with Call Any Vegetable proving an especially nifty fit in terms of vocal animation and rhythmic drive. But Zappa’s guitar attack on a lengthy instrumental that would later become the title tune to 1970s’s Chunga’s Revenge steals the show.

The first two editions are must-haves for any Zappa fan, while Venue #3 is more for devotees. All represent three vital shades of performance ingenuity behind one of rock music’s most steadfast revolutionaries.