Despite the wishes of some fans, it’s taken a while for complete-concert Frank Zappa CDs to emerge. Zappa himself was not keen on the idea, spending much of his later years slicing together bits of numerous concert tapes to create what he considered ideal releases. However, lately his Family Trust has started rolling them out, and, intriguingly, they’ve also presented music from bands Zappa overlooked on the discs he prepared.
It’s possible to summarize the novelty value of Philly ’76 in two words: Bianca Odin. Previously heard only on one two-minute track Zappa released in the early 90’s, her flamboyant soul singing is an unusual flavor in Zappa’s music (although flamboyant male soul singing, provided here by Ray White, would be a feature in most of Zappa’s bands from 1973 to the end). Odin didn’t stay long, and at times on this disc she sounds a tad ambivalent about voicing the dialogue of some rather dim-witted characters in Zappa’s lyrics, but her performance of “Dirty Love” is far more dynamic than the familiar low-key, Zappa-sung version.
Otherwise, this disc shows Zappa in transition. Except for drummer Terry Bozzio (who himself had been with Zappa less than two years), this was an entirely new band, and the music has less of the relaxed funk of the Overnite Sensation era and more of the aggression that would emerge on Sheik Yerbouti. The new songs, too, show Zappa moving away from sexual tall tales to exasperated portraits of a world full of teenagers rebelling against nothing in particular (“Tryin’ To Grow A Chin”) and adults indulging in chemical escapism (“City Of Tiny Lights”). Zappa’s own central vocal statement comes with the grim fantasy of “The Torture Never Stops.”
While it’s nice to hear a full show of this band in professional-quality sound, Philly ’76 is not mandatory Zappa. The setlist is heavy on vocal numbers and low on Zappa’s more ambitious material, and there’s only one unreleased song (the doo-wop cover “Stranded In The Jungle,” faster and less showy than the New York Dolls did it two years earlier) and one jazz vehicle (the long, languid “Black Napkins”). And although Zappa’s solos are good (especially the frenetic blues of “Advance Romance” and the lengthy “Torture” oration), they’re not up to the heights he would reach later in the decade.
As with most complete-concert releases, it’s necessary to take this for what it is: a document of a restless, hard-working musician at work, and in transition. And a previously neglected Zappa lineup getting its two hours in the spotlight.