Can it really be 45 years ago that Frank Zappa played a quartet of legendary concerts at the newly opened Roxy Theatre on LA’s Sunset Strip? Joined by what many consider to be one of his finest versions of The Mothers, Zappa delivered extraordinary performances of songs old and new, thrilling the lucky patrons both with his virtuoso skills and legendary panache as rock’s foremost bandleader. Collected in the 7CD box set The Roxy Performances, these shows stand today as some of the finest Zappa ever performed.
Long considered to be a Holy Grail period by Zappa aficionados, The Roxy Performances are the super duper definitive item (portions of the evenings have previously been available on the albums Roxy And Elsewhere (1974) and Roxy By Proxy (2014), with special mention also for Roxy: The Movie (2015)). Co-producer of the project, Ahmet Zappa, executor of the Zappa Family Trust, describes it perfectly: “This is one of my favourite FZ line-ups ever. This box contains some of the best nights of music Los Angeles has ever seen with their ears at an historic venue. Hold on to your hotdogs people. This box is the be-all-and-end-all. This is it. This is all of it. It’s time to gets your rocks off for The Roxy.”
It was 9 and 10 December 1973 when Frank and his celebrated cohorts – many of them fresh from the Over-Nite Sensation sessions – presented their lengthy new stage show, having rehearsed on 8 December for a film shoot/sound check. Not only does The Roxy Performances showcase both nights’ early and late shows, it offers generous behind-closed-doors material: a private, invite-only Bolic Studios Recording Session – held in Ike Turner’s Inglewood set-up – plus an unreleased track called ‘That Arrogant Dick Nixon’ (the hapless Pres features quite a bit on these recordings).
Musically and sonically it’s a mind blast. The five shows feature songs from 1969 to 1973, with many cuts culled from Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka and Over-Nite Sensation. There are also stacks of live goodies that capture Frank and his Mothers in their pomp: we’re talking favourites the likes of ‘Village Of The Sun’, ‘Pygmy Twylyte’, the music for monster movies ‘Cheepnis’ and ‘Penguin In Bondage’.
The interplay between Zappa and his players is astonishing. He revels in their virtuosity and gives them free rein. They repay him in full. Keyboardist George Duke, one of Frank’s all-time favourite collaborators, adds so much jazz-funk to the mix that it explodes with – what else? – invention. Bassist Tom Fowler holds it down while brother Bruce Fowler brasses it right up on trombone. Don Preston’s synths are way ahead of the game – and that also goes for percussionist Ruth Underwood. Listening to her keep up with – and ahead of – the pack is astonishing in itself.
With a band that good, it’s no wonder Zappa took off for the stratosphere on the complex instrumentals ‘Echidna’s Arf (Of You)’, ‘Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?’ and ‘Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)’, all of which display Zappa’s fabulous chops as he peels of some ridiculously great solos. Check the intricacy of ‘Inca Roads’ and the associated ‘RDNZL’, which appear to lampoon the overly serious nature of many progressive rock groups while out-manoeuvring them at their own game.
Contemporary press reviews of this hometown LA spectacular included the Los Angeles Times, who praised The Mothers’ sensational performances, while the Los Angeles Herald Examiner fingered Frank as “the counter-culture’s John Cage”.
The illustrious The Roxy Performances box set is enhanced by a 49-page booklet crammed with relevant photographic material, illuminating liner notes from fellow-producer, and Vaultmeister, Joe Travers, and nostalgic first-hand accounts from family friend, the Australian writer Jen Jewel Brown. The Blasters’ Dave Alvin also contributes, warmly recalling, “The Roxy Mothers were a grand combination of high art, low art, masterful technique and razor sharp humour with a touch of wild abandon.”
Fair enough. Now it’s surely time to pursue the mysterious towels of destiny, enter ‘Dupree’s Paradise’ and get into full jive mode for a trip through the ‘Cosmik Debris’.
The Roxy Performances can be bought here.