Over the six discs and seven hours of music that comprise Frank Zappa’s Halloween ’81 box set, there is one moment- of Zappa speaking, no less- that best summarizes the obsessive composer and musician. It comes following a lush and affecting opening instrumental, during Zappa’s welcome to the festive crowd on the final evening of an autumnal four-night stand in New York City. Zappa’s preface promises some songs in the set not played in the preceding three nights, tells of a rehearsal for such earlier in the day, and takes a slight jab at the apparent results in a quasi-apology for the just-finished rendition of “Zoot Allures.”
It’s hard to imagine a soul sitting in those Palladium seats that would have noticed a flaw in “Zoot,” let alone shared any comment, other than Frank. Yet, that’s Zappa; always driving to his standard of perfection. Here he was, following a Halloween doubleheader- two 130-minute Fright Night shows; 8 PM and midnight (the latter simulcast on MTV)- bringing the boys back the next day for a practice session ahead of a monstrous 155-minute finale. Needless to say this sonically immaculate collection- three complete shows; Oct. 31; November 1- is Zappa and his band running hot.
This is the third such box celebrating Zappa’s favorite holiday- the mask-and-cape of Count Frankula is this installment’s complementary costume- after previously issuing ’73 and ’77 editions. Zappa made an annual tradition of Halloween performances, almost exclusively in the Big Apple, and by ’81, it was an event. So, too, had his music evolved from early ‘70s progressive, jazz-and-soul infused grooves, to a nastier, pricklier blend eager to celebrate the juvenile, to the turn-of-the-decade combustive machine that combined it all, and whose societal and political targets (“Tax the churches”) provided just as much source material as dental floss farmers and taboo kink.
The support team is appropriately awe-inspiring; a shiny new band for Zappa, including a young Steve Vai on guitar and beast Chad Wackerman on drums. There are elegant entries such as “Black Napkins” and “What’s New in Baltimore” sharing space with tight-cornering virtuosity, as on “City of Tiny Lites,” and “The Black Page #2.” There’s Zappa’s trademark irreverent lyrical slant and annunciating delivery, and even Frank (kind-of) proto-rapping on “Dumb All Over,” with layers and layers of scintillating guitar to ponder, dicing and dueling with Vai on “Stevie’s Spanking,” or expanding the seams of “King Kong” and “Pound for a Brown.” Time and again, it’s like watching a Mondrian morph into a Pollock; tinted geometric precision dissolving into improvised, radical splatter patterns. Disciplined and exacting. Provocative and disrupting.
The last notes of the last song, “The Torture Never Stops,” would be the last Zappa would perform at the Palladium. The Halloween “torture” would continue elsewhere. The tales, sacred and profane, live on; musical specters of their biggest fan, Frank Zappa.