Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Zappa Road Tapes: Helsinki 73

A Retrospective Album Review with Minimal Commentary on Online Commerce

So I just bought Frank Zappa’s archival release Road Tapes, Venue #2: Finlandia Hall, Helsinki Finland, and if you like Zappa, you probably should too. It features the short-lived Over-Nite Sensation line-up of the Mothers, including at that time the great George Duke on keys, as well as jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, exploring more expansive instrumental territory than the album that they had just completed. By turns jazzy and discordant, with Zappa’s trademark “humanly impossible” compositions, it is a wonderful document of one of the most celebrated of the line-ups of The Mothers.

The Road Tapes series, of which there are presently only two, is relatively new, focusing on “guerilla” concert tapes, recorded on more primitive equipment, usually on tour stops outside of major metropolises where sophisticated multi-track tape machines would be more readily available. Sold almost exclusively through Barfko-Swill, the official online Zappa store, the Venue #2 set actually came out towards the end of 2013. I am almost ashamed to have gotten it only now, but I had my reasons…

See, for years Zappaheads have been irked by Barfko-Swill, due to what they thought were inflated prices (indeed, years ago, the RykoDisc re-masters of the Zappa catalog were sold on the site for almost 50% more than most retail stores, but since the rights to the music have reverted back to the Zappa Family Trust, the prices on the site have been much more reasonable) and inclusion of products of questionable value, hodgepodges of poor quality rehearsal tapes and outtakes. Also, to this day, Barfko-Swill has the annoying tendency to list new releases while giving very little information about the content. For example, the only information provided regarding One Shot Deal, a release from several years ago, is that it “[m]akes its own sauce” and is a “[s]hocking  summer surprise for no reason at all!” Frankly, a track listing would be more helpful. When all too often, retrospective releases can seem like a cash-grab, it’s things like this that really drive that point home. It seems like the Zappa Family Trust thinks that we should just buy anything that they deign to sell us.

I feel like I am in a comfortable position to say this. As a youth, I spent several years accumulating the complete Zappa catalog, and with over 60 releases during his lifetime, Zappa has the honor of being the musician to whom I have given the most money. I must say, I kind of resent this treatment. I may be a fanatic, but I’m not a chump.

On the other hand, as the Zappa Family Trust is so fervently dedicated to the protection of Zappa’s works and legacy, it means that many of these recordings have been carefully and lovingly restored. Also, unlike bands like the Grateful Dead, many of these recordings have not been available as bootlegs or widely traded tapes. Some of these archival releases have indeed filled in some long existing gaps. For example, the 2007 release Wazoo marked the first time that any live recordings of Zappa’s 20 piece “Hot Rats/Grand Wazoo” big band were made commercially available, and the quality of the release almost made it worth the 35 year wait.

Thus I had high hopes for this new Road Tapes release, and certain expectations of quality. As you have probably gleaned from the opening sentence of this post, I was not disappointed.

Hardcore Zappa fans have probably heard live recordings of this line-up before. Recorded on August 23rd and 24th of 1973 in Helsinki, this set was recorded days after the performance captured on the classic bootleg, Piquantique, recorded in Stockholm. Road Tapes, Venue #2, features many of the same pieces, with many more besides, and with obviously hugely improved sonic quality. Like that classic bootleg, it also shows the bridge between the instrumental albums Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, and the celebrated live album Roxy and Elsewhere.

In comparison to the recordings made later at the Roxy in Los Angeles, The Road Tapes sound comparatively subdued, attributable partly to the mix, but also to the fact of personnel changes in the interim, which included gaining an additional drummer and losing a violinist before they took the stage at the Roxy in December. This is not to say that the Road Tapes do not have moments of intense power. In fact, it could be said that the set is much more dynamic. While Roxy and Elsewhere surely illustrated both the band’s finely honed chops and their stage antics, the Helsinki Road Tapes showed the band in a more jazzy mode, demonstrating a more delicate virtuosity, stretching out on mostly instrumental pieces showcasing some of the most elegant aspects of Zappa’s composition and the interplay of one of his finest bands. The older pieces included are arranged in ways that suit this incarnation of the band, and are huge departures from the original versions. In addition, many of the newer pieces would receive extensive reworking before being official released. Some pieces would never sounds better, earlier or later.

Zappa, 1974. Photo by Jerry Aronson
Particularly of note is "RNDZL." In my opinion, no official recorded release of "RNDZL" ever perfectly captured that piece (although the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 2 version, recorded a year later, also in Helsinki, came close). While the Road Tapes version does not contain the melodic section that Zappa added after the departure of violinist Jean-Luc Ponty later in the year (a section which I always thought disrupted the pace of the piece), the propulsiveness, provided by the percussion section of drummer Ralph Humphrey and vibraphonist Ruth Underwood, and the marvelous soloing of Zappa, Ponty, and Duke, may make this the definitive official recording. While some pieces like the "Village of the Sun"/"Echidna’s Arf (of You)"/"Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing" suite pale in comparison with the aggressive and tight recording on Roxy and Elsewhere, the incredible versions of "Dupree’s Paradise" and "Farther O’Blivion" make me wonder why this tape was sat on for so long.

Road Tapes, Venue #2 is truly this is one of those archival releases that will thrill not only hardcore Zappaheads, but also people who may not be on that train yet, but have adventurous tastes and still unapologetically listen to music in the early 70s jazz-fusion milieu (okay, that’s a pretty specific group of people). It’s a great release from a time when Zappa finally had that group of musicians, made up of crack session musicians and future jazz legends, that could realize the kind of music that he wanted to compose, and bring a beautiful human element to it. So I highly recommend going to the Barfko-Swill website and getting a copy. Believe it or not, it’s cheaper there than on Amazon. I checked.

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