By Eric Podolsky
Show Review: Return To Forever with Zappa Plays Zappa :: 09.22.11 :: The Warfield :: San Francisco, CA
When Return to Forever announced in 2008 that they were reuniting for the first time in 25 years, jazz buffs and fusion geeks rejoiced. The ensuing world tour was a grand success, and proved (somewhat surprisingly) that there still existed a dedicated audience ravenous for the band's formula of hard-hitting, masterfully executed jazz-rock. And while RTF's 1970s fusion contemporaries (Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc.) have all but vanished, these guys carry on in a league of their own, bearing the genre's torch into the future, to the delight of music nerds everywhere. This time around, guitarist Al Di Meola has chosen to sit out the proceedings (as he seems to be more devoted to his own acoustic/world music), which has given the band a great excuse to revamp their sound with the inclusion of virtuoso guitarist Frank Gambale, and to the delight of everyone, the incomparable jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (who has proven to be a true X-factor for the band).
And just when things couldn't get any better for us music snobs, RTF tapped Dweezil Zappa and his band Zappa Plays Zappa to round out this epic cream dream of a tour. ZPZ is a behemoth eight-piece ensemble which is devoted to re-imagining the works of Frank Zappa with full-fledged, fleshed-out precision. Now in its fifth year of touring, this project delivers Zappa's mind-bendingly difficult compositions with effortless grace and fluidity. And while the band no longer features any original Zappa band members or special tricks (early tours featured archival footage of Frank soloing" in real-time over the live band), this group more than holds its own with this daunting body of work.
Their setlist on this night at The Warfield leaned heavily on Zappa's mid-70s catalog, and contained just the right ratio of well-known crowd-pleasers to obscure instrumental rarities. Vocalist/trumpet player Ben Thomas did a great job delivering the tounge-in-cheek lead vocals of tunes like Dancin' Fool" with just the right amount of Zappa-ness, and the band was clearly well-oiled from a long tour. A major highlight of the first part of the set was a gritty, funkified take of Fifty-Fifty" from Overnite Sensation that featured a raunchy solo from Dweezil and his Gibson (notably absent was Ponty, who played on the tune's original 1973 studio version). The band then launched into the famous Yellow Snow Suite" to close out the set, which comprises most of the first side of Zappa's masterpiece Apostrophe ('). This fifteen-minute-plus excursion was a musical journey that took us through all the elements that makes the music of Zappa great. As an extra treat, Frank Gambale joined the band for a Willie the Pimp" encore that saw Dweezil and Gambale trading nasty licks in a shred-fest for the ages.
After a lengthy set-break (an eight-piece band's gear takes a while to dismantle), we were welcomed into the world of RTF with Chick Corea's otherworldly vintage synthesizer intro to Medieval Overture," a complex instrumental number that the band executed with pure, fluid precision. Gamble and Ponty played the song's complex riffs in unison, blending their instruments together in a tonal mash that worked nicely. Throughout the set, these masters found ample opportunities to break the music off into assorted duelsCorea and Ponty dazzled us with soaring, melodic interplay, and soon after we were treated to a playful Corea/Stanley Clarke duel which was practically telepathicyou could hear the 40 years of experience these guys have playing with each other in every musical exchange.
In between each excursion, the band took ample time to revel in the audience's accolade, introducing each other with reverence and bathing in the response. I don't blame them for itI got the feeling that these guys play much smaller jazz gigs most of the time, and RTF is their one true outlet for rock stardom. They certainly deserve it, as true jazz fusion is a lost art of sorts these days, and the fans that come out of the woodwork for shows like these are quite inspiring.
After some more high-octane numbers that saw Gambale's mighty riffage dominate the improv, the spotlight shone on Ponty for Renaissance," a composition taken from his fantastic 1975 album Aurora. This saw the band bring it down, but no intensity was lost in this acoustic settingPonty's mesmerizing, harmonics-laced violin flourishes had us rapt in slack-jawed awe. This was followed by a thunderous upright bass solo from Clarke that practically moved mountainsthe way he slapped, strummed, attacked, and straight-up man-handled his instrument was a sight to behold.
The driving, cerebral After the Cosmic Rain" followed, and soon morphed into a swinging groove that saw Corea (on Moog) and drummer Lenny White go at it for a while in a more traditional jazz approach. What followed, however, was a defining moment of the night, as Stanley-effing-Clarke finally took an electric bass solo and shook the Warfield to its foundation. Slapping, popping, raking and fingering, this guy can really just do whatever he wantsthe man has no musical boundaries.
After closing with the gorgeous tune Spain" (perhaps Corea's most famous composition), the band let out all the stops for the encore, an arena-size take on School Days," the hard-rocking title track of Clarke's 1976 solo album, which was at the time a breakthrough commercial hit for the world of fusion. This riff-heavy tune saw all band members move to the front of the stage (with Corea on the Moog) for a defining, nostalgic rock-star moment. Something special happened during this songthere seemed to be a great release of sorts and the music just came pouring out. Everyone tore into their solos with flurries of wild abandon, and an air of majesty seemed to appear around the bandit hearkened back to a lost time when pure musicianship could earn you real rock-star status. And though such a time is 30-plus years gone, the decades seemed to fall away with each soaring lead, and on this night, RTF earned their rightful status of true rock stars once again. To quote some true music fans, We're not worthy."
Zappa Plays Zappa Setlist
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?
City of Tiny Lites
Yellow Snow Suite:
-Don't Eat the Yellow Snow
-Nanook Rubs It
-St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast
Willie The Pimp (with Frank Gambale)
Return To Forever Setlist:
Sorceress / Shadow of Lo
Renaissance (Jean-Luc Ponty)
After the Cosmic Rain
School Days (Stanley Clarke)
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