In 2020, one of the best things that has just come out for me is an archival release of legendary Frank Zappa concerts from New York which I could not attend back in the day as I was in school upstate. Exploring this third in a series of comprehensive concert-run super deluxe boxed CD sets issued by the Zappa Family Trust, Halloween ’81 has given me pause to reassess a period of Frank’s career which I kind of overlooked, especially when it came to appreciating his touring band of that moment in time. I had the albums, but I didn’t get into them as much as prior release for some reason.
As a lifetime Frank Zappa fan, why I downplayed this period is a good question beyond the scope of this review (besides, you don’t need to be bored reading about my trials and tribulations… this is about Frank!).
I will proudly say that I was at four of the NYC Halloween shows (’76, ’77, ’78, ’84) as well as ’80 and ’81 shows in Syracuse, NY where I went to college. I am grateful I got to be a part of that energy as many times as I did; the non NY shows I saw him play were good, no doubt, but there was always something magical going on in Manhattan for Frank at Halloween.
Listening to these recordings with now really fresh ears has been revelatory. I am getting to hear the material from those ’80s albums played by his great band live without a net. It is all delivered in real time with the energy that only an on-stage performance before a live audience can bring. The result is quite tremendous, I must say!
A detail worth noting: these shows are much less interactive than the typical Zappa Halloween show from prior years. Usually Zappa would have fairly extensive involvement with the audience but since the shows were both being broadcast via satellite on the radio and filmed for the then-new Music Television network (ie MTV), the band just stays focused and plows through the performances (in majestic fashion, I might add!).
So a song like “Teenage Wind” feels a whole lot cooler live than on the studio release. The back to back story telling of “Beauty Knows No Pain” into ‘Charlie’s Enormous Mouth” works great here. Even a comic jam like “Stevie’s Spanking” sounds “just right,” rocking harder than the version which came out on 1984’s Them Or Us.
The version of “Sinister Footwear II” on the midnight Halloween show is quite beautiful and epic! “The Black Page #2” here has a nifty little reggae lift going on through out which is pretty remarkable when you stop and think about it (the song is reputedly one of the most complex of Zappa’s compositions). There are neat arrangement tweaks Frank made on Sheik Yerbouti favorites “Flakes” and “Yo Mama.” The early versions of “What’s New In Baltimore” and “Moggio” here are hypnotic.
There’s a really sweet moment toward the end the late show where Frank pays grateful homage to New York City and his appreciation for the fan’s support (remember what I said earlier about being a part of that NYC energy… it really was “a thing”).
Then they launch into a reggae version of “King Kong” (from 1968’s Uncle Meat album). And to end the show they whip out a near-epic heavy metal version of “Auld Lang Syne” — apparently Zappa had been accused of being the Guy Lombardo of Halloween! Whammy bar guitar pyrotechnics included, no extra charge. Brilliant!
But wait, Z-mart shoppers… There’s more!
The November 1st show is a whole different animal since the broadcasts were over. Zappa broke out some special tunes including a great version of “Pound For A Brown” (from Uncle Meat) and the fan favorite “I’m The Slime.” On two of the Halloween ’81 shows they cover The Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post” — for reals, kids — and the second performance may be the best I’ve heard Frank do. The groove is just right and his feedback-drenched intro to the escalating solo is sublime.
Overall, the sound across the six CDs (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) comprising the Halloween ’81 set is excellent. All are based on fresh transfers from the original two-inch 24-track analog master multi-track tapes which mixed anew to Stereo at 96 kHz, 24-bit high resolution by Craig Parker Adams before preparation for the CD format. And for the price of admission in buying this set you get not only a booklet with great photos and liner notes by Vaultmeister Joe Travers and Zappa alum Robert Martin (who plays on these shows) but you also get the third in the exclusive series of Zappa Halloween costumes — this year he is “Count Frankula”!
Now the only thing I want to see and hear is proper video restoration of both complete Halloween ’81 shows with the audio mixed into surround sound. You can order the original DVD of footage culled from the two Halloween ’81 shows called The Torture Never Stops (click here). At minimum, it’d sure be nice to see this on a higher resolution format like Blu-ray Disc with a nice high resolution 5.1 soundtrack. Never hurts to dream!
Since we can’t really go trick or treating this year nor go to a Halloween party or concert, listening to classic Frank Zappa Halloween concerts is the next best thing for many of us in 2020. While you are at it, do check out the 1973 Halloween shows from Chicago which were released last year (click here for my review) Also don’t miss the stellar 1977 run (of which I did attend one show, click here and here for both parts of that review).
Hope you have a safe and happy Zappa-ween!