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Listening Report: Zappa/Erie Live Boxed Set From Pennsylvania

Mark Smotroff appreciates an artists’ freedom afforded by playing secondary markets…

I suppose that I was a bit musically spoiled having grown up in the New York area which afforded me numerous opportunities to see one of my all time musical heroes, Frank Zappa. Along the way, I seem to have acquired an admittedly misguided-yet-subtle sense of snobbery, previously leading me to think Zappa was at his best in the Big Apple

His shows there were often great, no doubt.  And compared to the shows I saw while in college in Syracuse, those relatively so-so shows only reinforced my semi-snootiness.

But the more I dig down into these wonderful archive releases which the Zappa Family Trust has been graciously bringing us fans, I realize that Frank indeed played many great shows wherever he could. And sometimes, the great shows were not in big cities like New York or even Los Angeles.

Now, I respect the Zappa Estate’s Vaultmeister Joe Travers immensely to the point where I knew that if he decided to issue a set dedicated to concerts specifically from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, they were not going to be lackluster.

Simply called Zappa/Erie, this latest in the archive series is fascinating snapshot of — if you’ll excuse me for referencing Ten Years After — a very specific space in time. Across six CDs worth of music culled from a semi-isolated north-western corner of Pennsylvania, we hear several different — and even rare — incarnations of Zappa’s band.

The official Zappa website summarizes it thusly: “Three complete shows from the Vault based on appearances made in and around the Vaultmeister’s hometown of Erie, PA: Edinboro College and Gannon University ’74 with Erie County Fieldhouse ’76.  Also includes bonus tracks from the same tours. Three separate band line-ups, newly mixed from the original 4-Track tapes by Craig Parker Adams and mastered by John Polito at Audio Mechanics. Historical essays by Dan Schell & Joe Travers. Available on 6CD Box Set.”

Exceeding expectations, these Pennsylvania performances are indeed notable and worthy of your exploration. Obviously Zappa was happy with these recordings as he used portions of them to create the versions of “More Trouble Every Day” and “Son Of Orange County” found on the Roxy & Elsewhere album (this was some of the “elsewhere” material!)

Just looking at the track listing for the first show from Edinboro, Pennsylvania (5/9/74), I got super excited.  As it was the 10th anniversary of The Mothers of Invention, Zappa had worked up a medley of his own oldies-but-goodies which take up much of the second CD in Zappa/Erie.

I had always dreamed of seeing a set like this where he does a lot of material from the days of the original first version of The Mothers Of Invention (Freak Out, We’re Only In It For The Money, etc.). Alas, I never got to see one of these shows, but at least now I can listen to one in excellent quality on Zappa/Erie

From the 1974 shows we also get bunches — bunches, I tells ya! — of songs which never made it out on to his official rock releases back when Frank was still alive, including “Tush Tush Tush (A Token Of My Extreme),” “Dupree’s Paradise” and “T’Mershi Duween.”  

There are also tremendous moments from 1976 featuring keyboardist / singer Lady Bianca who was only in the band for a month before disappearing from Zappa’s musical landscape. She was in the band for my first Zappa show I saw that year! Also, young Terry Bozzio was still relatively new to the Zappa universe that year.

On the 1976 shows we hear early versions of future Zappa standards like “City Of Tiny Lights.” This segues into a lovely version of “A Pound For A Brown” with — it is worth noting for those not familiar — some epic and always fascinating solo improvisation by Zappa.

Zappa fans know this, but many casual listeners don’t realize that Zappa was one of the great band leaders of our times, customizing his music arrangements and compositions toward the strengths of his players at any given time. This was a practice Duke Ellington was known for and Mingus and others later followed his footsteps.  

That said, there is a fascinating version of “Black Napkins” — then a brand new tune Zappa from his Zoot Allures album which had just been released about a month earlier — featuring Lady Bianca! Here, she contributes a rich bluesy scat-jazz vocal solo before handing over the spotlight to violinist Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music, UK, Curved Air). I can’t say I have heard every version of “Black Napkins” out there in the collector’s universe but I have heard many and as far as I know this is only the second version like this to be officially released.  There is a slightly earlier version on the 2009 archive release Philly ’76 which also features the Bianca/Jobson combination. 

Lady Bianca also takes the lead on a fabulous Gospel-soul tinged arrangement of “You Didn’t Try To Call Me,” supported in close harmony from guitarist/vocalist Ray White.

As we’ve become accustomed from the Zappa Estate in recent years, the production quality of the Zappa/Erie set is very high both as a listening experience and a physical memento. This time the producers have taken a slightly different approach to the packaging, housing it all in a lovely hard cover book styled format. This LP-sized package features a fun full color glossy photo of Frank on the cover and many fun reproductions of concert advertisements from the time and other memorabilia.

I’m still working my way though the rest of Zappa/Erie but I think you get the idea that this is a great collection. If you like this mid-70s period of Zappa’s work, you’ll probably want to grab this one soon. 

If you have subscriptions, streamers can enjoy the new Zappa/Erie set in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity on Qobuz Hi Res (click here) and Tidal MQA (click here). It is also available on Apple Lossless (click here).

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