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Listening Report: Zappa & The Mothers 1971 Super Deluxe Editions (Part 2, The Rainbow Concert)

Mark Smotroff continues his deep dive into an important era of Zappa’s band…

In the opening paragraph of the first part of my review series on Frank Zappa’s iconic and sometimes overlooked 1970-71 performing and recording era — featured in the eight CD boxed set The Mothers 1971 as well as two triple-LP expanded vinyl editions — I alluded to the notion that this underlying story was both exciting and bittersweet at the same time… 

If you missed that review, please click here to catch up. 

That sobering sadness comes into focus towards the end of Zappa’s 1971 tour when a series of tragic events forced the demise of this fantastic band that was arguably just reaching its peak performing powers. One of these horrid events nearly also killed Zappa!  

First, the legendary Montreux Casino burned down during Zappa’s show when a stupid fan set off a flare gun (!) in the venue on December 4, 1971. This frightening moment was immortalized in Deep Purple’s iconic hard rock smash hit single “Smoke On The Water” – they were slated to record in that theater space the day after the Zappa concert. 

Everyone got out safely, thankfully…

Unfortunately, the group lost all their instruments — one cowbell was all that survived! Amazingly, the group powered on, reconvening to play shows at London’s Rainbow Theater less than a week later using borrowed / rented equipment. It was at this final show and after the final encore — a jolly cover of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” —  that a crazed fan rushed the stage and pushed Zappa off into the 12 foot deep orchestra pit. 

Zappa suffered severe injuries which changed him for life: his voice was lowered significantly due to a crushed larynx and one leg was shorter than the other when his shattered leg finally healed. Apparently also suffered chronic back pain from that point onward due to multiple fractures and such he endured from the fall. He also spent the rest of his life touring with a bodyguard to ensure that something like this would never happen again.

That December 10, 1971 recording Live At The Rainbow Theater had never been released before but apparently Zappa did want to release it except that the complete show was not thought to have existed. Thankfully for us fans, Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers sleuthed through the archives and tracked down the missing portions and was able to reassemble a complete portrait of the show.

So… here we are now with the complete concert available in the best possible quality, including the final shocking moment after the encore. I’ll be upfront with you, Dear Readers: I haven’t had it in me to listen to that final little snippet at the end of the recording. I understand the need to release it for the sake of history, but It’s kind of like how I feel about seeing movies and shows about the Titanic: you know how it is going to end…

That said, I’m utterly ecstatic with the rest of Zappa Live At The Rainbow Theater! And that is the focus in my listening report today as we get to experience the 1971 Mothers as a well oiled machine, performing deeply inside this music all the while dealing with new instruments which changes their sound a little bit. Ultimately, this concert recording sounds unlike any other Zappa show I’ve heard — yet it does sound like Zappa… because… hey, hey they’re The Mothers! 

Zappa was reportedly playing a stock Telecaster that night which apparently was quite difficult as it wasn’t set up properly for him. You wouldn’t really know that because — hey — he’s Frank Zappa and he made the most of the situation. The performances are exemplary with a lot of focus on Don Preston’s synthesizer work — this sound textures here in many ways pre-echoes the future direction for Zappa’s music which would frequently include some type of synth.

Much kudos goes out to legendary rock producer/engineer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Kiss, etc.) who was brought on to do the mixing on this album from the original eight-channel multi-track analog tapes. The connection made particular sense because the fellow who did the original recording had been Mr. Kramer’s first boss, Bob Auger.  He explains this and other important insights in his liner notes to the album. 

The sound quality on Live At The Rainbow Theater is universally excellent and it is presented pretty much in unedited form. We get to hear the band warming up, using its first song as an extended soundcheck, interacting with the venue engineers to get the sound just right both on stage and for the audience. In that way this album has a bit an audio-documentary sensibility to it

But at the end of the day it’s also about the performances and on Live At The Rainbow Theater we get to listen to some rare material. Notably, there is an early performance of the Sofa suite (if you will), portions of which appeared on later albums (particularly on the One Size Fits All album from 1975). Called “Divan,” much of the piece is sung in a mock operatic fashion in German by none other than Flo & Eddie (aka Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan). 

One of my favorite moments on Live At The Rainbow Theater happens about three minutes into the second movement of “Pound For A Brown” where Zappa breaks down into some moody improvisation, along the way noodling his way into some of the haunting chord changes which ended up on his gorgeous acoustic song “Sleep Dirt” (recorded years later for the Lather album). 

The band whips out a jaunty polka-inspired version of “Sleeping In A Jar” from Uncle Meat. We also get to hear the infrequently performed “Wonderful Wino” which Zappa co-wrote with former bassist Jeff Simmons — the song was released on his rare Zappa-produced solo album (Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up) and later received an official Zappa release on the 1976 album Zoot Allures.  

Live At The Rainbow Theater contains easily the most rocking live version of “Sharleena” I’ve ever heard.

The whole concert is also included in The Mothers 1971 CD boxed set which is handy for mobile listening — that is if you, like me, still have a car stereo with a CD player in it! —or simply if you don’t want to flip sides of an LP.  

You can also stream The Mothers 1971which includes the completeLive At The Rainbow Theater concert in great sounding 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity on Qobuz (click here) and  Tidal MQA (click here) as well as Apple Lossless (click here). Personally, I like the sound on the Qobuz and Tidal versions. The Apple Lossless version sounds ok but to my ear feels closer to CD quality.

The discs for Live At The Rainbow Theater were mastered by Bernie Grundman at Bernie Grundman Mastering and they sound excellent. The album was pressed at Optimal Media in Germany on thick, 180 gram black vinyl that is dead quiet and perfectly centered. This triple gatefold package is manufactured to a very high-quality and certainly will be a great addition to any serious Zappa collection. 

However you do it, Live At The Rainbow Theater is pretty much essential listening, Zappa fans….

Ok, stay tuned for part three of my series when I wrap up my review of these wonderful 1971 Zappa collections… 

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