Frank Zappa – Zappa/Erie: Box Set Review

Zappa’s 1974 & 1976 visits to Erie, Pennsylvania documented in full.

Release Date:  3rd June 2022

Label: Zappa Records/UMe

Formats: 6CD Box Set / Digital

And so the programme proceeds.  Last November, Zappa Records/UMe celebrated the Golden Anniversary of the release of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels movie and album with a super-deluxe six-disc collection of just about everything connected to the project.  Then, in March 2022, came the next installment – a mind-blowing 8CD compendium of the historic Zappa/Mothers June 1971 concerts at New York’s Fillmore East, complete with the legendary cameo appearances from John & Yoko.  Both projects were lovingly overseen by Zappa Trust, produced by Frank’s son, Ahmet, and accompanied by detailed liner notes from Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers.  And now, here comes the next installment – and this time the subject is the three concerts that Frank and his band performed in the environs of Erie, Pennsylvania, in, respectively, May 1974, November 1974 and November 1976.  There’s a few bonus tracks included – from shows in South Bend Indiana, Toledo Ohio and Montreal, but the bulk of the package deals with those shows in Erie, which are each included in their entirety.

Why those particular shows? – you may ask.  After all, Frank and The Mothers were touring extensively throughout 1973 to 1976 and we know that sound desk recordings were made at many of those shows…  Well, I guess that the answer lies with Joe Travers.  He grew up in Erie and was aware that tapes of the three shows languished in the Zappa vault.  Finally, with the extra time thrust into his hands by the COVID lockdown, he got around to giving the tapes a listen and he realized that they were, in fact, of very good quality – indeed, they were too good not be released.

The specific concerts took place at Edinbro State College (now a campus of Pennsylvania Western University and located some 20 miles from Erie) on 8th May 1974, at Gannon Auditorium – part of the private Gannon University in Erie on 12th November 1974 and at Erie County Fieldhouse, a hockey arena in Erie, on 12th November 1976.  For Travers, the project has been a labour of considerable love and devotion, and he has been assisted in his work by the services of Erie-based journalist Dan Schell, the author of a book that details the history of rock shows at the County Fieldhouse.

As we’ve now come to expect, the package is, once again, a lush affair.  The discs contain a total of 72 tracks, almost all of them previously unreleased in any official form.  Ten minutes or so of the entire content did see light of day on Zappa’s classic 1974 live album, Roxy and Elsewhere, but, to all intents and purposes, this music will be new to all but the most avid Zappa bootleg-ologist.  Joe’s and Dan’s liner notes are detailed and informative and the package is copiously illustrated with Zappa photographs, images of the original tapes, concert fliers, newspaper reviews of the concerts and, perhaps the piece-de-resistance, a reproduction of an autographed polaroid of Zappa, almost certainly taken at the County Fieldhouse, that Travis’s mother retrieved from a garage sale during the 1990s.  Zappa Records/UMe have, once again, done FZ’s legacy a great service.

1973-1976 were busy years for Frank Zappa, even by his own workaholic standards.  In that four-year period, he released seven albums, toured the USA no less than six times, as well as touring Europe four times and Australia and the Far East twice.  He also found time to see out his long-delayed breach of contract case with London’s Royal Albert Hall – a case that was brought after the hall’s management unilaterally decided to cancel FZ’s 1971 200 Motels collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Zappa lost the case) – and to embark upon a protracted dispute with his record company, Warner Bros, that delayed the release of Frank’s 1976 album Zoot Allures and which permanently soured the relationship between artist and publisher.  And if all that wasn’t enough, Frank also undertook a root and branch overhaul of his band between his 1975 and 1976 touring commitments and enjoyed a temporary reconciliation with his sometime friend, sometime nemesis, Captain Beefheart.

And though it all, he managed to produce some memorable music.  When Zappa and his recently relaunched Mothers arrived at Edinbro State College on 8th May 1974 for the first of the concerts enshrined in this box set, his latest album, Apostrophe(‘), had been in the racks for just two weeks.  The album had been recorded at the same time as its predecessor, 1973’s Over Nite Sensation and, whilst containing strong jazz influences, both albums were, at least musically, amongst the most accessible pieces of work that Zappa had produced to date.  The lyrical content of the albums was another matter altogether and the sexual, often puerile, nature of Zappa’s words – particularly on Over Nite Sensation – drew critical condemnation, even in permissive 1973/4.  Lyrical puerility notwithstanding, Apostrophe(‘) remains Frank Zappa’s most successful album – the only album from his vast back-catalogue to make the top ten in the US album charts.

Apostrophe (‘)

It is surprising, then, that the setlist for the Edinbro State College concert completely ignores any material from Zappa’s latest contemporaneous offering and draws, instead, mainly from earlier albums, particularly The Mothers’ 1966 debut, Freak Out and, to a lesser extent, 1968’s summer-of-love parody, We’re Only In It For The Money.  From the perspective of 2022, that isn’t, of course a problem in any way, and the band – FZ on guitars and vocals, Ruth Underwood on percussion, Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals, Chester Thompson on drums, Tom Fowler on bass and George Duke on keyboards – are on fire as they surge through a 23-song set that includes epic versions of songs as varied as Cosmik Debris, Dupree’s Paradise, Son of Orange County and set-closer, Camarillo Brillo, the opening track on Over Nite Sensation.

By the time Zappa and the band returned to the Erie area six months after the Edinbro show for their gig at Gannon University, at least some of the Apostrophe(‘) material had been assimilated into the set and the versions of Stink-Foot and Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow they performed that night are both exquisite.  There’s also a whole string of stuff that would later see light in some form or another in Frank’s You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series of live albums and great versions of Dinah-Moe Humm and Montana – respectively the most pornographic and the most absurd songs on Over Nite Sensation.  But, again, it’s probably the epics – a rerun of Dupree’s Paradise and a preview of RDNZL (a track that would make its first official appearance on the ‘contractual obligation’ album Studio Tan in 1978) that, perhaps, offer the most engaging listening.

By early 1975 Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were – sort of – friends again after a long period of animosity that had started after the release of Beefheart’s seminal, radical Trout Mask Replica album back in 1969.  FZ invited Beefheart on tour; Napoleon Murphy Brock, George Duke, Tom Fowler and Chester Thompson stuck around from the 1974 touring band and Bruce Fowler (trombone), Terry Bozzio (drums) and Denny Walley (guitar, vocals) joined up for a tour that, despite the increasing fractiousness of the Zappa/Beefheart relationship, would produce the Bongo Fury album in October of that year.  Zappa and Beefheart didn’t work together again…

A fractious relationship – Zappa and Beefheart on tour in 1975

The Mothers’ lineup was tweaked yet again for the tour that straddled late 1975 and early 1976, before Zappa arrived in Los Angeles in May to commence recording Zoot Allures, an album that many, including myself, consider to be one of his strongest.  By the time that Zappa was ready to tour again in late October 1976, he’d dispensed with The Mothers and his touring band had been completely overhauled – this time the lineup was Zappa on guitar and vocals, Ray White on guitar and vocals, Eddie Jobson on violin and keyboards, Patrick O’Hearn on bass and Terry Bozzio on drums, and it was in this form that the band arrived at Erie County Fieldhouse for their 12th November 1976 show.

The new Zoot Allures album is well represented on the setlist for that night’s show, with Wind Up Working in a Gas Station, Black Napkins and Wonderful Wino sitting alongside a memorable version of The Torture Never Stops – one of Zappa’s most persistently disturbing songs – all included.  Elsewhere, the 1970 Chunga’s Revenge album is revisited with takes on Rudy Wants to Buy Yez a Drink and Would You Go All the Way?  Terry Bozzio and Patrick O’Hearn both take a solo turn in the spotlight and there’s an interesting preview of Tryin’ to Grow a Chin, a song that was to emerge on 1979’s Sheikh Yerbouti.  Like any Zappa show, there’s also a few immaculately performed old favourites (Dirty Love, Dinah-Moe Humm, Muffin Man) to enjoy, alongside servings of less-familiar fare.

The 1976 touring band

Zappa/Erie isn’t a collection that’s likely to pull in many new Zappa converts, but for those already in the know, it’s yet another fantastic piece of work from Ahmet, Joe, Don and the team at Zappa Records/UMe.  These live recordings from yet another special period in the career of Frank Zappa are exceptional – let’s hope there’s still a lot more goodies in the pipeline.

Watch Frank Zappa and The Mothers perform Stink Foot – one of the songs featured on this box set – live in Los Angeles in 1974 here:

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5 replies »

    • Hi Roddie – You’re quite right. I didn’t mention Bianca because I don’t think she was present on all dates but, perhaps in hindsight, I was being unfair. Apologies!

  1. Why is there so little talk about how absurdly expensive ALL of the “Ahmet Team” releases are? Not to mention the (mostly) useless paraphernalia included in all of them to try to “justify” the intolerable prices. This one is around 150$!!! This music is of course priceless, but that should not mean that Ahmet & Co should try to steal the money from Zappa fans. I was an avid collector of all things Zappa but I just can’t pay this ridiculous prices anymore. Shame on them!

    • You’re so right, I’ll never spend one cents for these stupid “devices”, even FZ, whose sense of humor could make me cringe, would never have thought of something as stupid and useless as these “halloween costumes”!

  2. I agree that pricing will be an issue to many who would otherwise be interested in this package and there will be reviewers to whom that will be an issue that they wish to comment on. As with all my colleagues here at At The Barrier, i’ve restricted my own review comments to the musical content of the package which, as djflow points out is priceless.

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