"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen... Ron Delsner is proud to present the most important musical event of 1976! The concert New York has been waiting for since the old days at the Garrick Theater.... "
-- Legendary NBC Announcer Don Pardo (quoted from the Zappa concert stage at The Palladium, NY, 1976)
Back in the late 1970s, the release of Zappa In New York, was something of an event as live concert albums go. It was a near-perfect thank you gift to the New York metropolitan area fans -- which includes yours truly -- who had been lining up outside concert halls in spirited (non-petulant) frenzy on cold nights waiting to see their hero play a series of increasingly epic holiday-timed concerts.
I was at one of the warm-up Halloween shows at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum in 1976 (and then also for several years after that at the Palladium) so I can attest to the energy that was in the air. Zappa In New York was a sweet memento of those tremendous shows from December 1976 (which held us fans over until the 1977 concert film and soundtrack, Baby Snakes was completed and issued many years later).
1976 was a great time to be a teenaged Frank Zappa fan. His appearance on afternoon TV talk program The Mike Douglas Show (alongside Kenny Rogers! Click here for that) gave Frank much needed seal of approval to worrisome parents..... like my Mother who was starting to question my passion for Frank's music. True story: at one point Mom asked to sit down and listen to Freak Out with me, as I'd been playing it a lot since I'd gotten into it around that time... and she got it... even the weird stuff didn't throw or worry her! And then she let me go to the Zappa concert with my friends that Halloween. My Mom was pretty cool like that...
Zappa also appeared on the then new and very cutting edge late night comedy program Saturday Night Live (including a classic jam with John Belushi in his Samurai character). Click here for that performance.
Anyhow, this bit of personal contextual conceptual continuity underscores my excitement for this latest release from Frank Zappa's estate which comes out this coming Friday. The Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary collection contains five CDs celebrating this crucial career moment and the emergence of Zappa's next great band (and new sounds) which would evolve over the next several years to deliver some of his most beloved recordings.
This new super deluxe package -- which comes to you wrapped in a limited edition metal tin mimicking a New York City street manhole -- kicks off with the album as originally mixed for vinyl. This is the version we all heard on long playing records back in the day and it is now available -- here for the first time ever in digital form -- remastered by the legendary Bob Ludwig.
Also included are more than three hours of unreleased live performances from the Palladium concerts, representing every composition played during Zappa's run of shows. The set includes extensive liner notes by Zappa alumni Ruth Underwood and Ray White as well as a Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers (with Jen Jewel Brown) which presents fascinating insight into Zappa's production practices and how they dealt with them for the creation of this fine set. And -- keep yer fingers crossed, kids -- at least one pre-order web page I came across while preparing this review / preview indicates that digital editions in 96kHz 24-bit will also be made available at some point.
So, how does the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary set sound, you ask? Pretty terrific as CDs go actually, this new reissue sounds much like the original album many of us older Zappa fans know and love!
For the purposes of this two-part review series I am mostly going to compare this new release to the 1991 CD of the album which Zappa eventually put out in quite remixed form. As an FYI for those not in the know, Zappa was an early champion of digital technologies and had transferred all his analogue multi-track recordings over to a variety of then cutting-edge (and seemingly ever-evolving) formats at the dawn of digital recording. Frank being Frank -- an "artist" in the truest sense of the word, restless and never completely satisfied with his work -- his digital production frenzy resulted in a head-spinning array of varietal mixes for the Zappa fan to comprehend and collect on the compact disc format.
The release of the 1991 version of Zappa In New York was at the time an exciting moment because it included four tracks not on the original release such as a fantastic version of "Cruising For Burgers" and the previously censored opus dedicated to the lead guitarist of rock band Angel ("Punky's Whips").
Anyhow, going back to how this all sounds, in short, the new CDs sound better -- at least to my ear -- in pretty much every way to those early digital reinventions. Why? Well... everything generally sounds a lot fuller and warmer. This may be due to the 16-bit limitations of early digital recording formats which Frank was using when he transferred things over in the 1980s. When it comes to CDs, there is a pretty big difference in how enjoyable an album can sound, especially when you can capture original analog recordings first at 24-bits before bringing it all down to the CD standard (16-bit, 44.1 kHz).
Actually, this warmth is not just limited to the original vinyl mix. Pretty much everything on this set sounds like mid-70s recordings should sound (if you will) whereas the 1991 CD feels -- especially in retrospect -- artificially bright. Perhaps Zappa went for that feel to try to modernize the recordings for potential airplay at the time, or perhaps it is just a by-product of the format. I'm not sure. But whatever the case this new set sounds real fine and I'm not hearing harsh anomalies that can creep into archival projects like this, so kudos to the producers of this set!
In part two of this review I will explore some of my favorite tracks from the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary collection. Stay tuned.
"That's right, folks
Don't touch that dial..."