Over the weekend, Theydon Bois has been posting his experiences and thoughts on the Roundhouse event in this KUR thread. In fact, he did such an amazing write-up, I figured it deserves its own post. Many thanks Mr. Bois!
Well, what a fun little festival this is! Though I am not altogether without misgivings.
The Roundhouse is lovingly bedecked with album covers, quotes and other FZ bric-a-brac, and there are a couple of “activity areas”, the more interesting of which allows the opportunity to produce primitive remixes of four tracks, namely the performance of “Andy” from Buffalo, “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”, one of the “Lumpy Gravy” sections and, best of all, an unreleased shuffle jam by the original MOI, based on the opening riff of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”. This last one is great fun and I hope it gets released at some point.
The opening Q&A session, with GZ, Todd Yvega, Ali N Askin and Frank Filipetti, was a thoroughly worthwhile event let down by a number of people in the audience who had obviously come along for exactly the wrong reasons. Because, let’s be clear, if you have Todd Yvega and Ali N Askin in front of you, two extremely personable human beings with many interesting tales to tell, each of whom witnessed aspects of Frank’s work that the general public doesn’t have access to a huge amount of information on, and you think that the best thing that you can do with that opportunity is to bellow “BUT WHAT ABOUT ROXY” at Gail, then I have to wonder: is that really all that matters any more? Does the delayed release of the Roxy DVD (and Dance Me This) really trump all other concerns? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a copy of that DVD as much as the next man, but when nice people have given up their time to share some rare insights and all people can do is to give voice to their own inflated senses of entitlement, then I think it’s time to change the record.
Todd Yvega should easily have had more time to talk; his discussion of the difficulties of reproducing FZ’s Synclavier music today, and of Frank’s working and recording habits, were fascinating stuff that I haven’t seen documented elsewhere. Poor Ali Askin barely got a word in at all, though his one substantial answer – about doing the orchestral arrangement of “The Adventures Of Greggary Peccary” – made me wish for much more on how the Yellow Shark arrangements came into being. Frank Filipetti spoke at length and with some passion, but had rather less of great insight to share. And Gail gave some entirely reasonable answers, I thought, and showed great dignity in the face of certain audience members’ behaviour (not just the types who mostly wanted to berate her, but also the spectacularly annoying guy in the front row who interjected throughout, apparently believing that he had as much of interest to contribute as the panel; I hope he wasn’t someone who posts here).
(And, in case it really is the only thing that matters to you, the scores were as follows: Dance Me This “before 2012 I hope” [though mention was made of some technical difficulties that might cause delays], and the Roxy DVD “not never”.)
The music in the main space began with the Roundhouse Music Collective, a group of very young people associated with the venue, who played a medley including some Ives, some Webern and some “Louie Louie”. Despite the contents, this wasn’t overly Zappaesque in its execution and was a bit underwhelming as an opening, but I suppose a crowd of FZ obsessive types was always going to be extremely critical of such things. Never mind, they’re young and may well have interesting work in them yet. It’s also worth noting that the lady trombonist was a big hit at my table; I am far too much of a gentleman, and too devoted to my own good lady, to speculate as to why, but I understand that there was a consensus that she had better legs than Bruce Fowler.
Next up was the London Contemporary Orchestra playing Varèse’s “Intégrales”. This was quite simply very good indeed. The Roundhouse is a bit of a strange venue for this sort of music, though; it’s certainly no classical concert hall, and the noisy air conditioning is a bit intrusive when it comes to the appreciation of somewhat intricate works. But I’d never seen Varèse performed live before and this was exactly everything I’d hoped for.
And then, great chunks of The Yellow Shark, including most of the highlights (though omitting the vocal-led numbers “Welcome To The United States” and “Food Gathering”, which was disappointing to many). While “Dog / Meat”, “Bebop Tango” and “G-Spot Tornado” were the predictable crowd-pleasers, for me the high spots were the pieces played by the string section alone, “III Revised”, “None Of The Above” and the pigeons one whose exact title I am in no position to call to mind at this precise moment. Such commitment and discipline in the string section was a thrilling thing to behold. I fortunately had an opportunity to congratulate the ‘cellist afterwards. Of the rest of the performance, I could be extremely picky and point out that not every piece was completely perfect in its execution, but I’m more forgiving of this than Frank was, and would rather hear a 95% accurate version of this stuff than not hear it at all. And most of the pieces were much better than 95% anyway. So, in conclusion, yeah! (Of course, “G-Spot” was awesome too. And we got “Bebop Tango” a second time as an encore.)
What else is there? Oh yes, the Hammersmith CD. Selling at a vast £40, but what can you do? The packaging includes a party hat and a balloon, plus sleeve notes by Peter Wolf, one of the less exposed alumni. While there’s no way I’ll have a chance to digest this properly until Monday, I should point out that the track list previously posted on this website is not correct, and that there’s no “Wild Love” or “Yo Mama” on this collection. This was naturally a huge disappointment for me, as those particular pieces performed by this particular ensemble are of course one of the great pleasures of life, and always provide a breathtaking one-two punch in a ’78 show. But nonetheless it’s still a great setlist by a great band, and there’s a 20-minute version of “Pound For A Brown” on there, so you’d have to be some sort of idiot to complain about that.
I hope that this is all of some interest to somebody.
So, day two, then.
I arrived bright and early for the showing of Uncle Meat, which I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing before. While waiting for the showing to start, I had a chance to have a decent chat to Todd Yvega (who was also there to watch the film for the first time) and can report that I still consider him to be an utterly sound human. I won’t describe the film here as I suspect that many readers will already have seen it, but I think it’s worth expressing how glad I am that all of these films are being shown this weekend, and what a treat it is for those of us who were too young to know during the heyday of Honker Home Video.
Then on to the Barfly for Andrew Idiot Bastard’s book launch, and a devastatingly hard quiz. I am now the proud owner of a copy of this tome and it looks lovely, though as with the Hammersmith CD I suspect it won’t be until next week sometime that I can offer anything approaching a considered opinion.
As a Golden Ticket operative I was then afforded a chance to sit in on the ZPZ soundcheck, which gave away some of the surprises planned for the evening (most notably “Valley Girl” with Moon and Thunes) though was otherwise unrevelatory. Dweezil seemed a little distracted by the imminent Q&A session, and the mix was far from optimised at this point, so I can only look back at this experience with a bit of a shrug, but hey, it was a nice idea.
The Q&A session starred GZ (again), Dweezil, Joe Travers, Scott Thunes and Jeff Simmons (arriving late and behaving like the most excessively relaxed man in the building); Ian Underwood was apparently unable to make it. Scott Thunes was easily the most interesting of these participants, affably describing his Clonemeister experience and his audition, and interjecting elsewhere (the most amusing being, after the revelation that Travers is producing a database of everything in The Vault, a Thunes chant of “PUBLISH THE DATABASE! PUBLISH THE DATABASE!”). None of the questions touched on any controversial subjects, though (the 1988 band was barely mentioned, come to think of it) – maybe everyone’s a bit scared of him.
The presence of a moderator and a larger crowd meant that this Q&A session was less rowdy than yesterday’s, so there was no particular hostility towards the Zappas noted, though inevitably the topic of future releases came up again; JT indicated that he’s keen to release something by the Summer ’73 lineup soon, while Gail indicated that they’re hoping to issue Bat Chain Puller by the end of January! Great news, I hope we all agree. There was also a superb question about the poor digital distribution of Zappa “product” (for want of a better word), and Gail stated that there should be some movement on this issue within three months, implying that legal issues were tying the ZFT’s hands a little. A good session.
Between this and the evening session I took in Video From Hell (another one I’d never seen) and an extremely good pizza from a restaurant over the road. This was followed by an unfortunate incident involving a misunderstanding between several aggrieved ticket holders and some slightly overzealous security guards, but let’s gloss over that.
The Mighty Boosh Band isn’t my particular poison, but at least they made the effort to look suitably ridiculous and didn’t murder too many Zappa songs (they did have a blast through “Willie The Pimp”, and just about got through it on audience goodwill alone, but I think a second one would have been pushing it). I neither loved them nor hated them; they were just something that happened. Something that didn’t happen, however, was the advertised reading from the Albert Hall Obscenity Trial, which might have been better suited to the occasion than the Boosh’s original material.
ZPZ followed and delivered neither the best nor the worst performance that I’ve seen of theirs. They divided the audience somewhat; of people I spoke to after the show, opinions ranged from “as good as Frank” (and that was from someone who’d seen FZ five times) to “a crap band” (and that was from a somewhat notorious figure who I won’t name). For my part, I had a good time squeezed up at the front, but not everything was to my tastes. The performance of the Apostrophe’ album was much too faithful for my liking; I much prefer my “Yellow Snows” and my “Stinkfoots” with the additional eyebrows of the later FZ live versions than in their vanilla studio versions, and so greatly missed many of my favourite details; particularly disappointing was the “Here Fido” section of “Stinkfoot” in which barely anything happened, and also would it kill Ben Thomas to inform us that St Alphonso is the patron saint of the smelt fishermen of Portuguese extraction? I should hope not.
There was quite a lot of playing-along-to-Frank-on-video (“Cosmik Debris”, “Dumb All Over”, the “Inca Roads” and “Muffin Man” solos, possibly others that I’m not recalling at the moment) and enjoyable guest turns from Thunes (who was onstage for several numbers) and Simmons (who performed a delightfully shambolic “Wonderful Wino”). Thunes in particular kicks the band into a much higher gear; this isn’t meant as a criticism of the usual bassist, Pete Griffin, who I wouldn’t particularly identify as a weak link, but Thunes has such energy and attitude, not to mention the willingness to play off-script, that he forces the others to up their game. Again, no Ian Underwood, sadly, but we did have Moon and her daughter Matilda onstage in the encores.
On the minus side, there were some bum notes during the lovely Ruth section of “RDNZL”, and the vocals on “Inca Roads” were less than stellar, but I have to balance this with the unavoidable truth that “Cruising For Burgers” (in a ZINY arrangement) was awesome, and “Baby Snakes” as an encore was a crowdpleasing treat. And the afterparty was much more lively than the previous night, with band members mingling with punters and Jeff Simmons continuing to look like he was having the most enjoyable day of his life.
This is good stuff. Is it worth mentioning that both Dweezil and Gail have stated on more than one occasion that they want this to be an annual fixture?
This is Phaze III.
Most of today’s pre-evening entertainment took the form of film showings, which again I won’t describe in detail because you may well all have seen them already. However, of the ones I’ve never seen before, I would highly recommend Peefeeyatko to just about anybody; fascinating stuff. And of the ones in the “seen-them-loads-before-but-went-to-see-them-anyway-because-there-wasn’t-much-else-going-on” category, I have to say that watching 200 Motels on a big screen with a good crowd of Zappa nerds is MUCH more fun that watching it on your own at home. And, of course, you wouldn’t have wanted to miss the audience reaction to the words, “Lord have mercy on the people in England for the terrible food these people must eat.”
In the middle of this “movie medley” (if you will, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t) was a remarkable session featuring Gail and film-maker Thorsten Schütte, comprising discussion between the two, open questions from the audience (within the scope of a session on Zappa-as-film-maker, so not completely “open”, anyway) and some archive clips unearthed by Schütte for his forthcoming documentary. Of all of the Q&A-with-Gail sessions, this was easily the most interesting and relaxed, and was notable for the fact that GZ even made reference to the Roxy footage without any prompting from the audience. Various video projects were discussed, including a filmed 1988 show that may one day see release (though no date was mentioned, and it was implied that this is still a low priority project). I did feel that, for the most part, this session went very well, though towards the end (again unprompted) Gail made mention of her ongoing Zappanale litigation, which raised the tension in the room somewhat (it had all been quite cosy until then). The discussion quickly moved on after this mention, though I understand that some fans did attempt to have a private talk with her on this topic afterwards (which I wasn’t privy to, so I don’t know how they got on – let’s use our imaginations, ladies and gentlemen).
Gail had teased us with the nugget that this Q&A session would be followed by a “surprise”, which turned out to be a screening of a Zappa home movie that had apparently never been shown in public before. Titled “Bunny Bunny Bunny”, this was a primitive one-camera video depicting a teenage Moon and two of her teenage friends mostly shrieking at each other, often all at the same time (leading to minimal intelligibility for large chunks of it). The “story”, in as much as there could be said to be one, involved “Felicity” (Moon) being required to carry out chores for an offstage lady, the manufacture of some sort of potion recipe, and the playing of an inexplicable game (the loser’s forfeit being to eat a lychee). While this was not totally devoid of amusement (Frank’s first interjection, as director, feeding a line to Moon [“She drains my positives” or something] got a good reaction, as did an unexpected cutaway to a shot of a cat), its interminable length and relentless noisiness soon tried the patience of even the most devoted fans in the audience. Current theories include the suggestion that this screening was meant as a test to see just how much self-indulgence the hardcore fanbase can withstand. (Yeah, I stayed to the end. Many didn’t.)
Much more rewarding (for Golden Ticket-holders, anyway) was the “Cheezy” “Champagne” (actually Cava) reception, with drinks, snacks and the chance to mingle with Gail, Diva and (briefly) Thunes. This was warmly received as a number of outstanding sore points and misunderstandings were addressed, not least the matter of the Hammersmith CD, which we had understood to be a free gift for Golden Ticket types, but which turned out to cost £40. This was happily resolved with the news that there had been a miscommunication and the CD should have been free all along, so anyone who’d already bought it (i.e. all of us) could claim a refund. Result! Another explanation was provided for Ian Underwood’s no-show yesterday; he has a bad case of flu.
Being a shameless sycophant I gladly posed for a photo with Gail and Diva, and said nice things to both, and I don’t care what YOU think about it.
With the weekend on an upwards trajectory we gaily skipped into “An Audience With Scott Thunes And Jeff Simmons”. This was the best Q&A of the weekend, without question; it’s tempting to say that the absence of Gail made everyone talk more freely, though it should also be acknowledged that Thunes and Simmons are both extremely amusing individuals and would probably have been great under any circumstances. As personalities, the two could hardly be more different; Simmons plays up to his amiable-stoner persona, permanently grinning and looking too relaxed for words, and with many anecdotes about his own consumption (when asked about his current musical activities, he wondered aloud if “taking massive bong hits and sitting at the piano” counted), while Thunes is fiercely intelligent, firing on all cylinders and bouncing off the walls constantly, giving short shrift to anyone who says anything even remotely foolish (including, on occasion, Simmons) and generally being excellent. (If anyone’s come out of this weekend well, it’s Thunes. I have nothing but admiration for him, and am greatly entertained by his caustic, intimidating personality – really, you wouldn’t want him any other way.)
There were some good questions, too, allowing Jeff to talk about quitting the group (he joked that he wanted to get a costume made for this weekend so that he’d have the good and evil consciences from the “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” animation attached to his shoulders) and Scott to discuss 1988 and some of the personalities he had run-ins with (with some particularly strong criticism aimed at Ike Willis, interestingly). I hope someone recorded this session.
The final concert of the festival involved the London Sinfonietta, who opened with “Revised Music For Low Budget Orchestra”. While this is a gem of a piece, I felt the performance was perhaps a little rough around the edges when compared to the best performances from Friday. This was followed by works by Boulez and Varèse, performed by smaller subsets of the ensemble, and these were much more successful; it’s odd that, as on Friday, the works involving smaller orchestral forces seem to be such highlights, especially given how not-at-all-intimate the Roundhouse is.
But any remaining reservations were blown away by the UK premiere of “The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary”, which the orchestra and guest vocalists NAILED. I have simply no criticisms of it at all. It was perfect, the high watermark of the whole festival. The audience was rapturous, and were treated to an encore of the end bit (from the trombone solo onwards) a second time, complete with some deviation from the script by the narrator (Gail didn’t seem to mind).
So with all of that in the bag, it seems appropriate to think about the Zappa At The Roundhouse event as a whole. On balance, and despite some reservations that I think I’ve made clear as I’ve been going along, I’ve had a terrific time and would gladly sign up to do the same thing again next year. I spoke to numerous fans throughout the weekend and their reactions were predictably diverse, from ecstatic zealots to cynical naysayers, but I would estimate that the majority of those who were there found it enjoyable. But what was it all about? Why did the event occur at all? Obviously the Roundhouse crew can take a lot of the credit, but the emerging consensus from the assembled fans goes as follows.
Gail and the Zappas aren’t completely oblivious to the outside world. They know they’ve made some unpopular decisions, and furthermore Gail can hardly avoid noticing that she gets relentlessly harangued about some of them whenever she appears in public. In particular, I think they’re very aware that attacking the Zappanale has been a massive PR failure. They had their reasons for doing it, which we can agree or disagree with as we see fit, and for better or worse they stand by that reasoning, but they know they’ve alienated fans, and so it seems that this festival was an attempt to rebuild some bridges with the fanbase, to offer an olive branch in the shape of a really awesome event (and hopefully the first of many). Did it work? As ever, opinions differ, but I did honestly overhear some other fans at lunch discussing how much sympathy they’ve come to feel for Gail as a result of this weekend, and how she does sincerely seem to be motivated by her honest perception of her husband’s wishes rather than anything more malign. I’m not claiming that that conversation was typical – I spoke to numerous anti-ZFT factions too – but I think it demonstrates that “the ZFT issue” is a complex one, too complex to resolve to simple statements of black and white. And I am torn in the middle here; on the one hand, I do feel that in a perfect world, we should be allowed to enjoy BOTH the “official” Roundhouse event and Zappanale, but on the other hand I find it near impossible to resent an organisation thanks to whom I had an opportunity to goof around with Scott Thunes on a staircase. Maybe I’ll make my mind up next year?
Over and out.