Even though this box set of eight discs contains four complete Fillmore East shows from June of 1971, a complete concert from London’s Rainbow Theatre, and a hybrid of two Pennsylvania performances, one cannot bury the lede: this 50th anniversary commemorative, with Zappa’s final Fillmore appearance, now includes the last night’s full encore featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and the London show, remixed by iconic producer Eddie Kramer, containing audio of the shocking and horribly violent attack on Zappa at its conclusion.
The lengths the Zappa Estate went to in obtaining both musical moments were not without some effort; the Lennon encore set comes courtesy of the Lennon Estate; the Rainbow incident uncovered on the master tapes by Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers. Of the two, the Lennon encore, in the obvious sense, is quite pleasing musically, with “Scumbag” one of the most entertaining proto-punk work-ups out there. The Rainbow finale, during which Zappa was attacked and thrown into the orchestra pit resulting in severe injuries including Zappa’s broken neck, is awful, if mostly muffled, included not to be sensationalized but instead as part of the historical record, as it were, of the crime.
As for the music on the rest of the eight discs, it’s a document of both The Mothers’ wildly irreverent achievements, circa 1971, and of Zappa as one always evolving. Even the somewhat repetitive nature, on paper, of the setlists for the four Fillmore shows is irrelevant given the improvisations within each song, let alone the entire show. The suggested star of the Fillmore sets is “Billy the Mountain,” the centerpiece of musical theater anchored by the vocal (and comedic) talents of Flo and Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) that dominates each concert. Yet, the show-stealer is Zappa’s work on any of the renditions of “King Kong,” “Willie the Pimp,” or “Chunga’s Revenge,” decimating and elevating the jams with exceedingly brilliant guitar, matched only by the improvisational acumen of Ian Underwood and Bob Harris.
By the time the Mothers get to the Rainbow in December, they’ve already shifted the setlist, (dropping “Billy” on this night), altered the lineup slightly with Don Preston taking Harris’ vacated spot on keyboards, and using borrowed (and lesser quality) gear- as their own went up in the infamous Montreux Casino fire a week earlier. Despite the sad and tragic ending to it, the London show, and the new mix from Kramer, is the jewel of the lot. The set, in hindsight, flows better with the absence of “Billy” (and some of its dated subject matter), crackles with intensity and tempo, and still retains Zappa’s pointed and vulgar humor, but none of “Billy’s” necessitated big chunk of the 90-minute appearance.
It’s a lot of music to sift through, admittedly, as is the case with any of the terrific multi-show Zappa sets that his Estate has been rolling out in recent years. The Mothers would be no more after Zappa recovered and returned to the stage, nor would there be a Fillmore East after June of ’71. Given the sonic detail revealed anew, and literal detail in its accompanying booklet (including a first-hand account from Underwood as interviewed by Ahmet Zappa), plus all the historic significance, for every Zappa fan it’s a trove of must-have moments in time.