Frank Zappa’s favorite holiday- Halloween- inspired some of the late iconoclastic musician’s most celebrated performances, and subsequently sought-after recordings. His annual fright night runs in New York City produced many a memorable evening, or several, as a wonderfully-done retrospective set of his massive October 1977 tenure in the Big Apple issued a few years back demonstrated. This year, the Zappa Family Trust has returned to 1973, and to Zappa’s appearance at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, for another themed box set featuring over four-and-a-half hours of previously unreleased material, including two full shows and rehearsal outtakes on four discs, (as well as a costume mask and green hands to transform one’s self into FRANKenZAPPA).
Zappa, himself, was transforming. The late October date marked only the second time this particular ensemble had performed live. Following the close of his European tour in September, Zappa reconfigured his lineup, bringing in drummer Chester Thompson and Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals, sax, and flute. This would become a classic group during an equally classic period in Zappa history resulting in the legendary live album, Roxy and Elsewhere, largely recorded a few months later at the famed Sunset Strip venue. First, though, were these two shows, here in their entirety, recorded on that fateful Halloween night in the Windy City, (back when it was standard practice for artists to perform multiple shows in an evening).
The pair of concerts, spread across three discs digitally transferred from the original analog tapes and sonically pristine in their fidelity, come with the expected several repeats on the setlist. Yet, as with any Zappa performance, no song is ever played the same way twice. That’s particularly notable in this case, as despite Zappa’s rigorous rehearsals, meticulous compositions, and top-shelf players, within each individual performance there was the constant human element; and these were some seriously talented humans, providing a harvest bounty of improvisational stretches and some of the finest musicianship ever displayed in progressive rock-and-roll.
Thompson and Brock pay immediate dividends, with the latter’s vocals greasier and more animated and the former’s rhythms downright funky and thick. The encore of the second show- a medley featuring a trio of Zappa instrumentals: “Son of Mr. Green Genes/King Kong/Chunga’s Revenge”- is easily a contender for the grooviest Zappa moment ever revealed on tape. Deftly comping George Duke’s keyboard mastery with such fitting answers on guitar, it’s a side of Zappa not noted often enough, with the 16 minutes contained within defying any listener to sit still.
There are great snapshots throughout, such as the faux/genuine jazzbo leanings on an freshly birthed “Inca Roads,” or the gouging leads on “RDNZL,” or the flashes of riffs and vamps- especially Bruce Fowler’s elastic trombone work and the mesmerizing mallets of Ruth Underwood- that move so fluidly in and out of the complexity and the silliness. Even the rehearsals, laid out on disc four, detail the necessary equilibrium of Zappa’s approach; loose and joyous, yet commanding and insistent. All totaled, it’s a magnificent collection, housed in a collector’s box worthy of display, with onstage and backstage photos featured on the disc sleeves as well as in the extensive and informative 40-page booklet.
Zappa’s Halloween would leave the Windy City for NYC, starting in ’74 and continuing for the next decade, but not before this lone Chicago howling left its permanent mark, becoming now an essential entry in his legacy catalog.