An Introduction to Frank Zappa: Part 1, The Helsinki Concert

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So I listened to “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on Easter Sunday, highlighted on this very blog, and it sucked me back into a mini-Frank Zappa kick. Zappa’s catalog is one of the most diverse, challenging, and downright bizarre in all of music. There are plenty of articles out there on “Where to start with Zappa” and “What are Zappa’s most essential albums,” and you will struggle to find a consensus across them.

Today I’m going to make my own suggestion for an entry point into this strange world of music.

Back in the late ’80s, Frank released a series of live albums called You Can’t Do That On Stage. It contained six volumes, most of which were compiled from different shows from every different eras and many different incarnations of Frank Zappa. The result is a bit odd. You’ll get a few live tracks recorded in 1968, then jump to a song from 1984, and then head back to the mid-’70s, all on one disc. FZ was a perfectionist, so apparently he was restlessly looking for the best versions, rather than worrying about maintaining an artifact of one particular show.
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That’s why Volume 2 stands out. It’s billed as “The Helsinki Concert,” a single concert in Finland from 1974. In reality, it’s comprised of recordings from two or three shows, although what’s important is that it features the same ensemble over a two-day period. You get a consistent record of what arguably his best band sounded like at a precise moment in time.

Brief aside: I’ve heard Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell from Phish talk about how their more complex compositions would often give birth to their best moments of live improvisation. The idea being, a really complex song (think “You Enjoy Myself” or “Reba”) requires a high degree of band interconnectedness to nail in concert. But performing those compositions would lead to a mind-meld, so that when the band moved to an open section of improvisation, they were completely connected. Without the tightly knit compositions, you don’t get the highest level of improv.

The Helsinki Concert is one of the best examples of this concept I can think of. Zappa’s music is expertly arranged, loaded with unusual time signatures, and requires a mind-boggling level of synchronicity to pull off on stage. To perform these compositions live — and make them sound good — is a feat on its own. What Vol. 2 shows is how bursts of improv and spontaneity flared out of the compositions.

Now, I’m recommending the entire set, which features tons of great music and plenty of stage banter and the type of wacky antics for which Frank’s band was known. But for our purposes, let’s really focus in on the section that begins with “Inca Roads” and runs through “Pygmy Twylyte.” That’s six songs and roughly 40 minutes of music. Hopefully, it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

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A quick note on the band. Zappa plays lead guitar, of course. You’ve got Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals and keys, Tom Fowler on bass, and Chester Thompson manning the drums. George Duke sings and plays wind instruments, and Ruth Underwood is on percussion. That’s six people, though often it sounds like twice that many are on stage. The songs are often decorated with sounds that are uncommon to a rock concert, such as Duke on the flute and Underwood plinking on the marimba. This band is famous from the live compilation release Roxy & Elsewhere, and the Volume 2 set contains many of the same songs. The difference is that by the time of the Helsinki shows, this band had gotten even tighter and meaner, absolutely mastering these songs with speed and precision.
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The show kicks off with the playful “Tush Tush Tush” and “Stinkfoot,” before transitioning to the section we’re going to take a closer look at. “Inca Roads” is a song about alien spaceship runways in the Andes, with a tightly constructed opening section that quickly leads into a searing Zappa guitar solo. The band lays down a solid foundation over which Zappa straight-up shreds. The band returns to the song, before breaking out into a jazz-fusion jam, anchored by the rhythm section and some great keyboard work, before concluding the song. “Inca Roads” packs a whole lot of music into just under 11 minutes.

We transition into “RDNZL” with Ruth Underwood stepping out front during the opening section, leading into another white-hot guitar solo from FZ. The composition shifts multiple times, finally releasing with a nice vocal interlude (“we could share a love”). This leads the band back into another jazz-fusion jam that’s similar to what we heard in “Inca Roads.” Somehow “RDNZL” packs just us much music into 8:43 as “Inca Roads” fit into 10:54.

“Village of the Sun” keeps the energy going, and the band knocks out the song before letting Duke take the lead with a sax solo. When I say “solo,” by the way, I mean that the sax is the lead instrument, but the entire band is ripping through this rendition, filling in every available space. A smooth segue lands us in “Echnida’s Arf (Of You),” containing some of the most complex music of this entire section. It’s a high-wire circus act of a composition, which culminates in an outstanding tension-and-release in its back half. Simply outstanding stuff.

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“Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” follows. They tear through it, with Frank bringing back a little stage banter. Finally, we get to “Pygmy Twylyte.” Another tight rendition, which unfolds into another favorite segment shortly after the 4-minute mark. The band lays down a slower groove, and FZ’s solo is gorgeously melodic.

To wrap it all up, you have a band that’s mastered some incredibly dense music, and was capable of performing layered compositions at breakneck speed. As a result, the improv explodes in barely conceivable bursts. The contrast is thrilling.

Let me know what you think. Take in the rest of the set. Go from there.

Phish Monthly: Hartford Civic Center – Hartford, CT 11/26/97

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On Wednesday, November 26, 1997, Phish played the Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut.

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Opened in 1975, the Civic Center was the original home of the NHL’s New England Whalers and the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team. Its roof collapsed in 1978 after a heavy snowfall. The venue was rebuilt, and served as the home of the Hartford Whalers from 1980-1997, when the organization moved and became the Carolina Hurricanes. That was mere months before a band from Vermont came calling.

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Phish 1997 Fall Tour has long been held up as a particularly high peak in the band’s history. The tour lasted about a month, starting in mid-November and ending in mid-December, with a New Year’s run tacked on at the end of that year. Arguably, some of the best Phish shows ever played occurred early in that tour.

This isn’t news, but any Phish head will happily talk about how the band’s sound had gone through a major evolution earlier in the year, with slower, funkier jams taking center stage. The Fall Tour continued the funk explorations, but some darkness had begun to creep back in, too. What you get is a stretch of shows that are rightfully lauded for their intensity and innovation.

When trying to decide which show from November ’97 to highlight, you don’t have to think too hard. 11/17 is the classic Denver show, immortalized back in the days of compact discs as LivePhish Volume 11. The next show, 11/19, is partially included as filler on LP 11. Then you have the Hampton shows, 11/21 and 11/22, which rank among my absolute personal favorites of any Phish shows. 11/23 was included on a box set with the Hampton shows.  11/29 has the famous 58-minute Runaway Jim. These shows are staples.

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So for today’s highlight, let’s go for a show that’s maybe just slightly overlooked: 11/26/97, Hartford, CT. Nestled in between the 11/23 show and the famous three-show Worcester run that closed out the month, 11/26 nonetheless is worth exploring for anyone who is hooked on that Fall ’97 sound.

The show opens with a raging Tweezer that stretches over 18 minutes. This isn’t usually in the conversation when discussing ’97 Tweezers, but it’s high-energy goodness that builds to a satisfying peak in the final few minutes. Don’t sleep on the Gumbo in the third slot. This is a slowed-down-and-stretched-out Gumbo that unravels over 12+ minutes. Other first half highlights include a strong McGrupp and Split.

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The second set kicks off with the pairing of Character Zero > 2001. If you’re not familiar with this show, you might shrug your shoulders. Don’t. This is not your grandfather’s first-set closing Character Zero. This is a searing, 21-minute Zero jamfest. It’s nasty and dark. Do you like evil Phish? Listen to this bad boy. The band then lets the jam dissolve into 2001. This one gives just the right amount space funk to keep the party going. Then we get more good times with Cities and Ya Mar, as well as a Caspian with a little extra juice.

In a month of truly excellent Phish, some of the best Phish ever, the Hartford show is not quite at the front of the conversation. But it’s worth a closer listen. Here’s a YouTube of its entirety.

Or stream the show HERE.

And download the show HERE.

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[OM, ladies and gentlemen. Yeah. We’ve started a new feature on LN: Phish Monthly. It’s a companion piece for Grateful Dead Monthly. PHM will be written by OM and assisted by me, JF. I’d normally signoff by saying “More soon.” But this post isn’t mine. So I’ll just signoff for him.]

OM

The Case for Cornell

cornellI can’t share any memories of the show, as I was just shy of 8 months old on 5-8-77.

But, like a lot of people, Cornell was in the very first batch of bootlegs I was given. Somewhere in early 1993, I want to say, I gave a high school friend a stack a Maxell XL II blanks, looking to get my hands on some Phish shows. He happily obliged, on one condition: he would include two Dead shows along with the Phish. I liked the Dead at that point, but what I knew of the band consisted mostly of the few CDs I’d purchased. I had Anthem of the Sun, Skeletons from the Closet and Terrapin Station, all picked up on the cheap at a used CD store without any foreknowledge of what they sounded like. I was happy to take what my friend had to share.

When he gave the tapes back, he included 7-16-90 and 5-8-77. I knew absolutely nothing of the shows, other than they were the recommendations of a friend that I trusted. For a year or so, they were all I listened to in my car. I fell in love with both shows, to be honest, although it was clear that the music on the tapes listed “Cornell” was special. I listened to them front to back, and flipped ’em over and stared again when they were done.

Perhaps there are better shows, objectively speaking, than 5-8-77, though I’d argue, objectively speaking, there may not be. The music is so outstanding, so incredible, it’s pretty much undeniable. The Scarlet > Fire combo is rightfully considered an all-timer, as is the Morning Dew. Dancing in the Streets is a top version, as is Not Fade Away. And not to be forgotten is that first set, which features tight and energetic versions of every song played, from the opening Mingelwood to the Jack Straw and Brown-Eyed Women.

Granted, as I’ve readily admitted, the tapes were one of my first true Dead experiences. So I’m biased. The music is elemental to my understanding of the band which became a lifelong love.

Sure, I’ll listen to arguments for 8-27-72 or 2-13-70 or any of a dozen other greats, if you want to say those shows are more deserving of the best-ever crown. Certainly shows and jams go deeper, pushing the boundaries in unique and risky ways. I’ve often made the case that 1972 is the band’s best year, so I can see why people gravitate to other shows and eras.

5-8-77 is, obviously, a 1977 show, and that’s why you don’t get the extended psychedelic freak-outs of a Dark Star, a Playin’, or an Other One.  Instead, you get the essence of the band at that point in its history, a peak in one of its greatest months.

And finally, part of the lore of the Cornell show comes from how highly traded the tapes became (and in high quality, too). I would guess my experience with Cornell is not uncommon. So if you think that the trading and sharing of bootleg recordings was one of the most important elements of the Grateful Dead, and that 5-8-77 was one of the most readily available shows, and that the music is at the upper echelon, and that therefore 5-8-77 may be responsible for turning on more Deadheads than any other show out there, now you’re suddenly making a damn good argument that it’s the “best” show ever. It’s the way I look at it.

Should You Care About a New Avalanches Album?

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In 2000, the Australian group The Avalanches released their debut album of electronic music, Since I Left You. The album’s 18 tracks are built almost entirely out of samples, using a technique known as plunderphonics. Basically, The Avalanches’ members Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann were the ultimate vinyl nerds, and altered and twisted over 3,500 samples from a wide range of genres to make their singular musical statement.

The initial critical acclaim for Since I Left You has only grown in the last two decades, and the album gradually gained masterpiece status among a certain type of music fan. To understand why, I am going to ask you to check out two YouTube videos, both pertaining to the title track of the album.

Here’s “Since I Left You”:

The song’s clearly a blend of disparate sounds, but it comes together in a way that’s about as pleasing on the ear as music gets. A steady beat, a flute, a few “do-do-do”s, and finally the vocal line, which is just about perfect for the music. The song is almost endlessly enjoyable. It’s repetitive without being tiring. As a whole, the album’s songs bleed into one another, with themes and sounds popping up across tracks. Songs change midstream, leaving you with something that feels quite a bit longer and more meaty than 18 tracks.

Now check out this video:

Someone has taken the time to identify the source of each sample in the title track, placing the original next to the altered sample with the track. It’s the same song, but isolating the samples shows you what an accomplishment this really is. Sampling is not always art, but The Avalanches truly took something old (or a great many old things) and turned them into something brand new, with a life all its own.

Now, after 16 years, The Avalanches are releasing their new album, Wildflower, next month. Things have changed since 2000, and it’s not quite as easy to sneak 3,500 samples onto an album without a team of high-priced lawyers knocking at your door. They’ve released three tracks so far, and at least one, “Colours,” apparently contains zero samples, even though it has the same sound-collage feel as the original album.

Let’s see what the rest of the album brings.

Radiohead: “A Moon Shaped Pool”

A couple of days after Radiohead released, “Burn the Witch,” the first single from their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, I was watching an episode of Bill Maher. The infamous bridge troll Ann Coulter was a guest panelist, and when a fellow talking head tried to back up his argument about illegal immigration with a few data points, Coulter’s sneering response was, “Those are untrue facts.”

What could be a more perfect encapsulation of the bizarreness of 2016 than “untrue facts”? The dictionary says that a fact is, “something that truly exists or happens; something that has actual existence.” But in the destabilized world of 2016, something can both be true and untrue simultaneously.

So the appearance of this blistering new Radiohead track seemed uncanny. The intense paranoia of the strings, the “low-flying panic attack” in the lyrics, and the wacked-out stop-motion video pointed at a return of the Radiohead of 2003’s Hail to the Thief album. Clearly Radiohead were digging in to take on the European refugee crisis, or Trumpism, or whatever else ails the world. When I unwrapped the plastic from the CD and popped it into my CD player for the first time (ed. note: he actually probably downloaded the album on his phone), I was looking forward to an 11-track rage against the machine.

And yet, A Moon Shaped Pool surprised me by turning its gaze bother inwards and outwards. Yes, “Burn the Witch” feels of-the-moment, and “The Numbers” seems to be at some level a warning about climate change. But elsewhere, whether on “Daydreaming” or “Decks Dark” or most obviously the heart-in-mouth finale of “True Love Waits,” this is actually—can it be?—a Radiohead break-up album. Thom Yorke and his partner of 23 years recently split, and since Radiohead must be overanalyzed at all times, could this be his response?

The answer is both “yes” and “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Yorke’s lyrics are personal in many places throughout the album, but he also remains either elusive or obtuse, depending on your POV. “Decks Dark” may ask, “Have you had enough of me? Have you had enough of me? Sweet darling,” but there are also bits about a spacecraft blocking out the sun and a ten-ton head made of wet sand. Yorke’s digging deeper than a simple, “I broke up with my partner and now I feel sad.”

Musically, this is Radiohead at its most intense. If you measure intensity only in metric tons of guitar riffage, you’ll strongly disagree with that statement. But in reality, these songs are tightly wound compositions. Famously, guitarist Johnny Greenwood has been moonlighting as a film composer for Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s brought those compositional chops with him to A Moon Shaped Pool. The London Contemporary Orchestra is the sixth “member” of the band here.

And I’m not talking about some bullshit November fucking Rain string arrangements here. These songs have been composed and arranged as though they are part of a cinematic score. Whether it’s the dreaminess of “Glass Eyes” or the intricate mind-scramble of “The Numbers,” Greenwood has made the most effective use of an orchestra I know of on a popular rock album (if that’s what this really is).

Electric guitars and drums play less of a role, though when they do surface in the groove of “Ful Stop” or the crunching solo of “Identikit,” they feel all the more significant for it. Mostly, though, traditional rock instrumentation is just another tool in Radiohead’s expanding kit. And while they may make this album sound painfully overproduced, that’s not how it feels. These are compositions. The closer you listen, the more the album drags you down into its layers of sound. There aren’t many bands that are a better “headphones band” than Radiohead.

“Enough of this yabbering,” you may be saying to yourself. “What I want to know is, how good is A Moons Shaped Pool? Can I get a ranking here?”

True enough, Radiohead fans on the internet enjoy a good numbered list. Consequence of Sound went through the painful and rather absurd exercise of ranking every Radiohead song from worst to best, and I’d be willing to guess that article has had as many hits as anything else they’ve published recently, even though their ranking of “How to Disappear Completely” was inexcusably low. I’m not going to get into every song, but I will happily stick my neck out in terms of where this fits into the overall Radiohead catalogue.

I consider three Radiohead albums to be masterpieces: OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. I don’t really see the need to argue for those three, as their brilliance is pretty much indisputable. In the second tier, I would put The Bends and Amnesiac. Truth be told, I’m tempted to put The Bends a touch higher on the list, but not by much. It goes to show how consistently great Radiohead has been that these two albums constitute a second tier. Hail to the Thief and King of Limbs sit on the third level as albums that are occasionally great but still flawed. The outlier is the debut album, Pablo Honey, which clearly must bring up the rear.

A Moon Shaped Pool nestles in alongside The Bends and Amnesiac. All three are excellent albums, and just because they are not as transcendent as the three big ones, it doesn’t make them any less great. Let’s give A Moon Shaped Pool an A-minus on the report card. Now, granted, I’ve had A Moon Shaped Pool for about five days now, so I could very well look back on this on laugh. But that’s why Liner Notes pays me the big bucks.

Fortunately, Radiohead doesn’t end with its studio albums. JF reviewed some of the webcasts that Radiohead has released around previous albums, and he’s shared some truly must-see videos, along with some other context around the studio releases.

R.I.P., Prince

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Writing about Prince leaves me feeling flat. How do you begin to talk about an artist who is so expansive, who swallowed so many styles of music and regurgitated something all his own, who was a virtuoso on multiple instruments, who was more than just music, who challenged how people thought about issues of race, gender, sexuality and personal identity?

Prince exploded on the scene in the late ‘70s, dominated the ‘80s, and then continued to create and perform music almost constantly for the rest of his life. He spit in the eye of the big record companies, questioning their purpose to the artist long before the internet killed them off. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, cuz he could. His needle often swung from eccentric to weird to WTF? and back again.

I just can’t believe all the things people say / Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?

Prince removed his back catalog from streaming services (except Tidal) and blocked unauthorized videos from YouTube and across the internet. That’s fine—it was his music. It makes it harder to share all my favorite songs now, but that’s OK. Back when his material was on Spotify, I had a Prince playlist with everything I considered “essential.” There were around 70 tracks. The only artist I have with a longer playlist of essential tracks is Bob Dylan.

Rumor says Prince has a bottomless pit of unreleased material. If we’re lucky, we’ll be treated to a bootleg series, like the ones we have for Dylan and Miles Davis, which allows us to explore the depths of his music. Lord knows how many gems there are in the unreleased stuff that has already leaked—imagine what’s still hidden.

Speaking of Miles Davis, the two worked on a number of collaborations, but not much of what they produced together was up to Prince’s exacting standards. Seriously, what is in that vault?

Miles says Prince was a combination of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye and Charlie Chaplin. Who are we to argue with that?

Every time I comb my hair / Thoughts of you get in my eyes

Prince was an incredible live performer. People who focus only on his biggest mid-‘80s hits underestimate what a guitar player he was. I never saw him live—that was stupid of me. I wish I’d seen him live.

I have the most love for the sweet spot of Prince music, from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s. My favorite album is either Dirty Mind or Controversy or 1999 or Purple Rain. Probably 1999 for those extended funk work-outs. Beyond that, his output was sometimes confounding, and yet there were still high points, late-era favorites like Musicology and Art Official Age.

If you disagree, that’s cool, too. Everyone who loves Prince has their own Prince, depending on when they discovered him and what part of his music or artistry or personality resonated with them.

I feel like I’m looking for my soul / Like a poor man looking for gold

My Prince is the one who celebrated life through some of the best damn party music you’ll ever find. It’s the one who could sing about down-and-dirty sex in one breath and spiritual transcendence in the next—and suggest that maybe the two weren’t so different after all, that they were about what it means to be human. It’s the Prince who thought we could dance our lives away.

If there is any chance he’s right about that, if we really can dance our lives away, it’s only because we have his music to dance to.

The Monday Jam – ’92 Reba

 Hello from snowy New England, where the spring tease of recent weeks has given away to a mid-March snowstorm. These late winter days put me (for some reason) in mind of early-’90s Phish. And when I think of early-’90s Phish, I often think of Ms. Reba. 

There’s an argument to be made that the essence of Reba can be found in 1992 or 1993 versions: the jumpiness of the verses, the tightly interlocking pieces of the composed instrumental sections, the drop into a soft groove, and the inevitable build to a euphoric peak.  Everything that makes Reba a special part of the Phish arsenal can be found in the ’91-’93 years. 

Today’s selection comes from a show in Porstmouth, NH on March 6, 1992. It’s a gorgeous version, pulsing with feeling. I’m sorry, you just don’t get more beautiful than a ’92 Reba. 

Is this the best version of Reba? No, likely not. I’d put it among my five favorite versions from the year, and quite a bit lower on the list of all-time Rebas. But that’s not the point here. The point is that everything that makes Reba great is found in this clip. 

So take a trip into the way-back machine and enjoy.