FRANK ZAPPA – ” Halloween 81′ “

Posted: August 17, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

 

It wouldn’t be Halloween without a little Frank Zappa…and this year, Zappa Records and UMe are delivering once again with a frightfully entertaining new box set.

The bandleader’s New York Halloween shows were among his most anticipated as he blended his signature musical virtuosity with a heavily tongue-in-cheek dose of seasonal revelry.  The 1981 stand at the late, lamented Palladium – a once-luxurious 1927 movie palace theatre, sadly demolished in 1998 to make room for new dormitories at New York University – was particularly special to Zappa’s fans as he had curtailed the 1980 shows earlier than expected as a result of illness.  (Not to mention that there was no fall tour, and no Halloween show, in 1979.)

Halloween ’81 would be even more special, however.  Zappa had arranged for the midnight concert in front of the 3,000-capacity crowd to be recorded for both radio and television (the latter on a new channel called MTV) – reportedly the first live simulcast in cable television history.  The early show at 8 pm was filmed, too, and multimedia auteur Zappa would put that footage to good use, too, on his home video releases of The Torture Never Stops (1982) and The Dub Room Special (1983) and on the audio releases of The Dub Room Special, One Shot Deal, and the You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore series.  This new box set, however, marks the first time audio from the concerts has been released in its entirety.

For the shows, Zappa was joined by his new band consisting of three new players – Scott Thunes on bass, Chad Wackerman, on drums and Robert Martin on keyboards – plus veterans Ray White on guitar, Ed Mann on percussion and Tommy Mars on keys.  Steve Vai, affectionally referred to by Zappa as the “Little Italian Virtuoso,” appeared on his second tour as a band member.  This unit had only been on the road for a month but played with the tightness of a seasoned troupe as they ran through Zappa’s intricate melodies both new and old.  The tour supported the September 1981 release of You Are What You Is, and a number of that double album’s songs were featured including its title track, “Teen-Age Wind,” “Doreen,” “I’m A Beautiful Guy,” “Mudd Club,” “Dumb All Over,” “Suicide Chump,” and the Halloween-apropos, double entendre-laden “Goblin Girl.”

Available on October 2nd: there are 3 shows on 6 CD, more than 7 hours of Zappa, With a mask and costume, plus a 40-page booklet with rare photos from the event by John Livzey and new liner notes by touring band member Robert Martin, Vaultmeister Joe Travers and super fan-in-attendance Gary Titone who pens a remembrance of the shows. In addition, a 1CD version titled “Halloween 81: Highlights From The Palladium, New York City,” featuring performances from all three shows along with an exclusive track, “Strictly Genteel,” from the November 1st show not included on the box set.

These ended up as the final shows Zappa ever played at the Palladium and as his penultimate Halloween concerts.  He would revive the tradition just once more at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in 1984.  Halloween 81 captures Zappa and his musical cohorts in peak form.  Both the 6-CD and 1-CD iterations arrive from Zappa Records/UMe on October 2nd and can be pre-ordered .

In 2020, one of the best things that has just come out for me is an archival release of legendary Frank Zappa concerts from New York. Exploring this third in a series of comprehensive concert-run super deluxe boxed CD sets issued by the Zappa Family Trust, Halloween ’81 has given me pause to reassess a period of Frank’s later career which I kind of overlooked, especially when it came to appreciating his touring band of that moment in time. I had some of the albums, but I didn’t get into them as much as prior release for some reason.

As a lifetime Frank Zappa fan, why I downplayed this period is a good question beyond the scope of this review (besides, you don’t need to be bored reading about my trials and tribulations… this is about Frank!). Listening to these recordings with now really fresh ears has been revelatory. I am getting to hear the material from those ’80s albums played by his great band live without a net. It is all delivered in real time with the energy that only an on-stage performance before a live audience can bring. The result is quite tremendous, I must say!

 

A detail worth noting: these shows are much less interactive than the typical Zappa Halloween show from prior years. Usually Zappa would have fairly extensive involvement with the audience but since the shows were both being broadcast via satellite on the radio and filmed for the then-new Music Television network (ie MTV), the band just stays focused and plough through the performances (in majestic fashion, I might add!).

So a song like “Teenage Wind” feels a whole lot cooler live than on the studio release. The back to back story telling of “Beauty Knows No Pain” into ‘Charlie’s Enormous Mouth” works great here. Even a comic jam like “Stevie’s Spanking” sounds “just right,” rocking harder than the version which came out on 1984’s “Them Or Us”.

The version of “Sinister Footwear II” on the midnight Halloween show is quite beautiful and epic!  “The Black Page #2” here has a nifty little reggae lift going on through out which is pretty remarkable when you stop and think about it (the song is reputedly one of the most complex of Zappa’s compositions). There are neat arrangement tweaks Frank made on Sheik Yerbouti favourites “Flakes” and “Yo Mama.” The early versions of “What’s New In Baltimore” and “Moggio” here are hypnotic.

There’s a really sweet moment toward the end the late show where Frank pays grateful homage to New York City and his appreciation for the fan’s support (remember what I said earlier about being a part of that NYC energy… it really was “a thing”).

Then they launch into a reggae version of “King Kong” (from 1968’s Uncle Meat album). And to end the show they whip out a near-epic heavy metal version of “Auld Lang Syne” — apparently Zappa had been accused of being the Guy Lombardo of Halloween!  Whammy bar guitar pyrotechnics included, no extra charge. Brilliant!

Frank Zappa, Halloween 81 (Zappa Records/UMe)

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