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Frank Zappa’s The Roxy Performances : CD, Tidal Streaming Review

Mark Smotroff gets his Roxy groove on…

The new seven CD boxed set from the estate of Frank Zappa — entitled The Roxy Performances — gives you every note (and then some) that was marinated, drizzled, sizzled and barbecued during those three nights in Los Angeles back in December 1973… You will hear one of the most beloved incarnations of The Mothers of Invention blooming before your mind’s eye, pulling off some of the most incredibly complex and remarkably melodic material in Zappa’s hefty catalog of music.  

AR-ZappaRoxyPerformancesLOGO225.jpgOn these concerts — and one disc including sound stage performances a few days after the show — you hear the band begin their residency, warming up every step of the way. Now, it’s not as if they weren’t already well rehearsed — they had been on tour including in Europe, so this band was very much road tested and broken in. Still, they start at a high level of proficiency and by the end of the run they are simply on fire (thus my opening line about barbecue).  By the time this band got to Helsinki Finland in 1974, they were playing this material even faster and more precise still, and no less heartfelt either!   

For the novice Zappa fan reading this review, if you are curious about what all this hoo hah is about, simply pick up a copy of the original Roxy and Elsewhere album — or if you have Tidal you can stream it in CD quality at this link — and perhaps you will understand and appreciate this need for a collection like this. Roxy & Elsewhere is a great place to start because in many ways it is the perfect distillation of everything that this particular band was about. The live-with-studio-enhancements recording arguably achieved a perfect balance between Zappa’s comedy-infused musics — which in some ways had threatened to overwhelm his trajectory of more serious composition (see Fillmore East June 1971) — and his more intense and (if you will) serious compositions.  So while this band no doubt tackled comic fan favorites like “Montana” and “I’m The Slime” (from the hit Overnight Sensation), these concerts gave the audience a healthy dose of new songs which were both funny and incredibly complex (“Echidna’s Arf,” “Penguin In Bondage,” “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Cheepnis,” “Village of the Sun”).  You even get to hear an early version of “Inca Roads” which came out on the fantastic 1975 album One Size Fits All (click here for my review of the recent reissue of that album)

On  The Roxy Performances you’ll hear this new music evolve and grow. 

AR-ZappaRoxyPerformances225good.jpgAnd then there are a bunch of other new songs which didn’t see the light of day until much later, for reasons perhaps obvious and not so obvious. “RDNZL” is a great one but that didn’t really come out until five years later on Studio Tan (originally slated for the then-unreleased four LP boxed set called Läther).  The versions here are pretty breathtaking and compositionally quite beautiful and remarkable.  Of the other new songs which didn’t make the cut for Roxy & Elsewhere are “T’mershi Duween” and “Dupree’s Paradise,” the latter I can understand them not releasing — it is a fascinating piece with some incredible sequences, but ultimately it feels somehow incomplete compositionally. There are fantastic reinventions of older gems from the 60s including “Uncle Meat,” “The Dog Breath Variations,” “King Kong” and “The Idiot Bastard Son” which didn’t make the cut for the original two LP Roxy set. Grand Wazoo-era tunes like the album-side-length track “Big Swifty” (from Wakajawaka) received a tight and effective condensation but somehow it all still works in the context of the shows and the other songs they are doing. 

You’ll experience a bit of Zappa’s conceptual continuity ideas when you hear “Orgy Orgy” on Disc seven.

One of the amazing bits on this set also can also be found on Roxy The Movie which I reviewed last year when it came out (click here for that review) and on the subsequent archival release Roxy By Proxy (a sort of single disc highlights of what is on this set). But its a cool enough moment which warrants calling your attention to it once again:   a percussion-only preview performance of “Cheepnis” done only by the two drummers and vibraphonist before the band plays the whole song.  So the audience first hears just the drum track essentially played live and then gets the whole song.  It’s quite stunning.  And again, it is more evidence of just how intimate these musicians were with this music. The full version of the song seems to be the same basic track that ended up on Roxy & Elsewhere (with inevitable overdubs). 

AR-ZappaRoxyPerformancesTapeBoxes225334.jpgSpeaking of overdubs, perhaps the most exciting part of this new boxed set is on Disc number six which includes not only rehearsals from December 10th 1973, but also a session at Ike Turner’s Bolic Studios from December 12th, recorded just days after these shows tracking songs which ultimately ended up on the album Apostrophe. And for those of you who like Frank’s politics, well then the previously unreleased remake of 1967’s “The Idiot Bastard Son” into “That Arrogant Dick Nixon” will be something of a holy grail for you to enjoy.  I don’t want to spoil it all for you but this is some really amazing stuff to hear including “the first studio version of ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.'” (and do note that I’m quoting Zappa’s own intro there as they were also filming) that is is unlike any version of the song most you are probably familiar with.  There is a “Be Bop” version of the then-still-unreleased tune “Rollo” and a fascinating snippet of the “Father O’Blivion” section (of the “… Yellow Snow” suite) with singer Napoleon Murphy Brock taking most of the lead vocal (as opposed to Zappa’s lead on the final version which was eventually released).  

And so it goes on The Roxy Performances. 

Overall these CDs sound quite excellent and what you hear on these tapes is pretty much what went down during these sessions, warts ‘n all.  These mixes were created from fresh 96 kHz, 24-bit transfers from the original 16-track analog multi-track master recordings so the sound is pristine. The only thing that would perhaps be better would be to get this set on a Blu-ray (or perhaps a high resolution download) but until that time this set is a fantastic document of a moment in time when uniquely qualified musicians convened to perform some of the most individual and inventive popular music of 20th Century.  

The Roxy Performances is an essential release for Zappa fans, and fans of the Roxy & Elsewhere era in particular.  It is also an incredible education on what really goes into making a live album. Like The Allman Brothers legendary Fillmore East concerts and The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, many a live album starts with a solid well recorded live track that is carefully mixed and — sometimes — sweetened in the studio afterward. This isn’t a bad thing — its just a reality of what goes into making a great live album!

Get it. 

And if you haven’t seen it, pick up Roxy The Movie which I reviewed here on Audiophilereview a couple of years back — click here to jump to that review. While you are reading that, click here explore the Roxy By Proxy album on Tidal, which again can in some ways be considered a preview sampler of the joys found on this nifty new boxed set.

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