Nothing says Valentine’s Day weekend quite like an evening of Hot Rats. In a return to his Southern California homeground, Dweezil Zappa brought not only a complete in-sequence performance of his late father’s scintillating solo debut, but a multitude of other favorites, as well, to the Canyon. Garnished with several special guests, the Saturday night appearance by the Zappa scion delighted the nearly full Agoura Hills club, as the sit-down crowd, mostly of couples, dined on food, drink, and two-and-a-half hours of blissful musical marksmanship.
There was an opening “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” and Zappa’s welcome to some friends in the audience, including The Cars’ Elliot Easton, before the night’s centerpiece of Hot Rats. The 1969 classic is his late father Frank’s first album on his own, and contains many of the avant-garde composer/musician’s more indelible instrumentals. Dweezil did it justice, and then some. Accentuating the talents of his band, especially multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez on horns, keyboards, percussion, and vocals, and his own prodigious guitar work- at times approximating the iconic violin tone of Jean-Luc Ponty- Dweezil took on each extended piece of compositional and improvisational wonder and devoured it.
“Peaches en Regalia” registered all of its pomp majesty; “Willie the Pimp” exuded all of its back-alley grease; “Son of Mr. Green Genes” tiptoed through its syncopated orchestration into open fields of solo excursions; “Little Umbrellas” breathed its exhales of baroque; “The Gumbo Variations” careened through its bombastic funk just as “It Must Be A Camel” retained its weirdly incongruous melodic atonality. In short, a beautifully triumphant reading of a brilliant record, top to bottom.
The rest of the evening- and there was plenty that followed- was subtitled “Other Hot Stuff” and teetered between Frank classics and deeper cuts. There was 10-year-old guitarist Gus guesting on “Muffin Man.” And Gonzalez’s husband, James Santiago, bringing his guitar to trade improv with Dweezil. And Lari Basilio bringing her six-string to the party, late in the show, grinding out “I’m the Slime.”
Some of the entries glowed more conspicuously in their ‘weekend of love’ context, drawing, perhaps, wider smiles than usual on “Penguin in Bondage,” “Penis Dimension,” and “I Have Been in You;” the latter, Dweezil explained, was Frank’s response to the saccharine stylings of Peter Frampton. It was on an extended “Broken Hearts Are for Assholes,” though, that the theme of romance held its greatest sway as Dweezil narrated a clandestine dalliance between Chewbacca and the Predator set to a cocktail of Barry Manilow’s “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” mixed with Chuck Mangione, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched. Later, Dweezil’s crackerjack ensemble even conjured Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson channeling Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian.”
Dominant through all the mischief was the expected and necessary ultra-high standard of execution, with Dweezil and his five hitting each musical target with sniper’s precision. For as often as Dweezil shared the stage with another gunslinger on guitar, his generosity never left him less than sparkling during his own moments. On a closing “Black Napkins,” Dweezil was particularly patient and tasteful, then combining as one with his group for the parting “Sofa No. 1” that lowered the curtain poignantly on this epic performance.
It takes a Zappa to play Zappa; to embody the kind of rare and idiosyncratic perspective that Frank possessed. And, really, with his own exceptional proficiency and character, Dweezil, respectfully and progressively, has made the music as much his own as his father’s. These concerts devoted to Frank’s work have never been a nostalgia trip, nor a tribute act. This is a thrilling ensemble playing impeccably the complex, humorous, and challenging music of a modern master.