Excuse me while I engage in a bit of steamy vinyl enthusemagorica…
(ok, I just made up that word)
As I opened the new four-LP boxed set called Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show, the first thing that came to mind is a sense of elegance. This package looks and feels elegant. The vinyl records are packaged lovingly in a high quality, sturdy slimline package (about the same thickness as George Harrison’s three-disc epic All Things Must Pass, for those of you who care about this sort of nuance).
Sure enough, when I took off the box lid there was a sleek, satiny blue ribbon lying across the elegantly packaged vinyl discs and full size booklet. The pastel-hued record labels peeked prodigiously through the polyethylene-lined paper inner-sleeves, prompting me to quickly remove the cover from my turntable. Putting the needle to the groove, the first thing I heard was… silence… giving way to applause. Instantly, I found myself transported to a concert I so wanted to see back in 1988 but couldn’t because I was plotting my move to San Francisco from the New York metropolitan area. I figured I’d catch the tour on the West Coast.
Those West Coast shows never happened, alas.
I closed my eyes again and enjoyed a moment of mind transport to Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, imagining myself at this epic concert which turned out to be Zappa’s last show ever in the United States. That fact alone makes this an important document for the Zappaphile to hear, yet given it is a fantastic performance makes it one that you might want to consider owning on vinyl as well as CD (not just streaming).
I am pleased how great Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show sounds, knowing fully that it was made from an early all-digital recording.
Working my way out of this vinylite dream state, I whipped open the booklet to read the liner notes from Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers. There he confirms my suspicion that these fine sounding recordings were made on Sony PCM 3324 multi-track recorders at 44.1 kHz, 16-bits.
But, if it’s 16-bit why do I need that on vinyl?, I can hear you in the back row asking… Yes that was the limitation of the digital audio standard of the time but don’t freak out just yet. You see, since the music was recorded at this level of resolution, they are technically lossless recordings. The CD version and streams (at least on Qobuz and Tidal) won’t have to be reduced from a higher resolution to the 16-bit standard. It just is all at 16-bit. Now, that’s not to say that 24-bit resolution wouldn’t have been nice if they had the technology then and maybe we might hear a bit more of the musicality within… but, hey, let’s just stick to the reality of the situation.
Or as my buddy Greg in Pasadena always says, “it is what it is…”
And what it is is a concert that sounds pretty fabulous, newly mixed from those 48 channel master multi-tracks — two 24-tracks were sync’d up — with the vinyl lacquers cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.
Mastering here may be the bigger factor as to why this album sounds as good as it does, more than some may think at least. I went back to listen to some of my 1988-era Zappa recordings and one thing was very apparent: those recordings sounded very digital even though they were made on the same recorders as this live collection. What’s the difference?
Well, I’m guessing here but it may have to do with the processors used at the time both in the final mix down and in making the vinyl lacquers. I played my vinyl copy of Zappa’s Broadway The Hard Way (an earlier album made up of recordings from this tour) and it displayed that uncomfortable sense of digitization which I personally find problematic. Perhaps not surprisingly, the original Rykodisc CD of that same album (which has much more music on it than the single disc LP, by the way) displays much less of that crunchy sonic flavor. So something must have happened on the way from translating those 16-bit masters to the vinyl format.
This brings us full circle to appreciate that much more how nice Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show sounds on vinyl! I suspect that modern 24-bit (or higher) processors were used along the way which (again, educated guessing here folks, this isn’t hard science) were probably less invasive and more transparent to deliver the essence of what was captured on those original 16-bit, 44.1 kHz recordings.
I even went back to listen to Barking Pumpkin Records edition CD of The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and was surprised how thin it sounded, ultimately.
I then spot-checked versions of Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show on Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here) and the new album sounds quite wonderful there… in all its native 16/44 glory. I sampled some newer remasters of material from that late ‘80s period on Qobuz and Tidal such as Make A Jazz Noise Here and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and they sound pretty good. The latter sounds quite nice on Tidal, actually. Broadway The Hard Way sounds much better than my old Rykodisc CD, so some new mastering alchemy must have gone into the preparation of these newer versions.
It may be time for me to purge my old CDs!
Anyhow, lets get back to the new live album…
Once all the levels got set (someone’s mic seems a little hot on “Love Of My Life”) the band settles in to remind us why Frank called them “The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life” and even named an earlier album after them. This group which featured Walter and Bruce Fowler from the legendary Roxy-era version of The Mothers of Invention, plus the backbone of the 81-84 era Zappa band (Chad Wackerman, Scott Thunes and Robert Martin) are rounded out with Ike Willis and Ed Mann who rode the Zappa arc from 1977 onward. It is quite an assemblage.
But wait Zappa shoppers… there is more: add in then-new stunt guitar wizard Mike Keneally and the resultant band was a monster waiting to roar.
And roar it did across part of America and Europe before imploding (or being imploded by Zappa actually… it is a long story, you can read about it in the booklet and online, if you’re not familiar with the tale).
So what impresses me is just how wonderful Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show feels as live albums go, especially Frank’s overdriven incredible-sustaining guitar tone which jumps out of the speakers (check out the solo in “Sharleena”). I mean we knew that the band was fantastic but to have an almost beautifully mixed near complete performance presented as part of his archive series is just fabulous (two tracks come from other shows on the tour).
Oh, did I mention that this band rocks madly? That they can take a quirky track like “Packard Goose” and make it feel like a pop song is quite remarkable.
Across the four black , 180-gram vinyl LPs — I didn’t get the spiffy purple ones — you’ll hear Zappa and his band take you on a grand journey through “The Royal March” From Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat and a theme from Bartok’s “Piano Concerto #3” to the theme from Bonanza (which segues hysterically out of “The Torture Never Stops”) before leading into “Lonesome Cowboy Burt” (from 200 Motels).
You’ll get exemplary versions of many Zappa classics including “City Of Tiny Lights,” “Inca Roads” and a new age version of “The Black Page.” One of my favorite Zappa tunes is happily included, “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus.”
Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show marks the first appearance anywhere (officially) of a Beatles-flavored medley (lyrically altered to — ahem — reflect some socio-political news of the moment) which Zappa broke out that tour. They also do a relatively straight cover of “I Am The Walrus” which is quite epic. These have never been released officially before due to copyright issues. Given that the Zappa Estate’s releases are issued by the same parent company that handles The Beatles’ work (Universal Music), they no doubt worked out the nitty gritty to give fans these joys they’ve wanted all these years.
Two other covers version songs are stand out moments on this set: a six minute version of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” and the ever-more stunning 10-minute take on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” (sans the reggae intro found on the Best Band You Never Heard… version, btw) The latter tune never ceases to make my jaw hit the floor and then smile as wide as possible as the full 10-piece band breaks into Jimmy Page’s classic guitar solo note-for-note. Yes, a full horn section playing that epic solo. Its fantastic and it is worth the price of admission to hear that alone.
So, do you need Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show on vinyl? If you like the format and don’t mind a couple of segues being interrupted by album side flips, then yes. Otherwise, the CD version is probably a good option for you. I appreciate the care that went into the making of this set so I’m happy to have this on vinyl, as near a definitive document as we’re likely to get.
Either way, you should buy one of these versions of the album so this project helps to pay for itself — your support allows the estate to keep issuing further archive releases, folks… and you know we want more releases! Just sayin’ for those who may want to just settle for the streams, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show is a very nice package worth owning. It pays tribute to a poignant moment in Zappa’s life. I, for one, am grateful to have it in my collection now.