Best Albums of 2013 – #11: Frank Zappa – Road Tapes Venue 2

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011’s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010’s list, click here.

#11: Frank Zappa – Road Tapes Venue 2: 

It’s been a big few years for Zappa fans: his back catalogue’s in print again and the Zappa Family Trust has issued a bunch of new recordings such as the double album Finer Moments or the live DVD A Token of His Extreme. Even the long-awaited Roxy DVD is supposedly on it’s way, some 40 years after it’s announcement.

But the best was the launch of a new series: Road Tapes. Last year’s volume, a complete Mothers of Invention gig, was fun (see my review here) but this year’s release really raised the ante.

Volume Two is mix from three shows in 1973 in Helsinki, Finland, edited together to form a more-or-less complete concert. It’s interesting because it covers a period of his touring band that’s never really been touched on. Joining him are longtime collaborators like Ruth and Ian Underwood and George Duke, plus some musicians who’d only be around for a couple of tours: bassist Tom Fowler and drummer Ralph Humphrey. And, for one tour only, Zappa was joined by Jean-Luc Ponty.

At this point, Ponty wasn’t quite as famous as he’d become. He was a few years away from joining the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a string of successful solo albums. Still, he’s in top form here, as is the rest of Zappa’s backing band.

They twist and turn through some of Zappa’s quirkier compositions, like RNDZL, Dog Breath and Echidna’s Arf (Of You). On the free-form showcase Further Oblivion, Ponty and Ian Underwood stretch out their solos, showing how talented this band was improvising. But the real standout here is Duke: he takes the vocal lead on Village of the Sun, delivers a wild keyboard solo and then leads the band’s improvisations on Dupree’s Paradise. In some ways, this album can be seen as a tribute to the late Duke, who died earlier this year at 67.

What about Zappa himself? The beauty of this era – ranging from about this tour through 1975’s Bongo Fury – is that he didn’t need to do everything and could spend songs in the background, playing rhythm guitar. And when he does explode into a solo, it’s with a fury: his wild lead guitar on Montana and Big Swifty ranks among the best in his career. With such talented soloists behind him, no wonder he stepped up to the occasion.

It’s starting to look like Road Tapes will be an annual release, with a new one each year. It’s not a quick as pace as what it’s sometimes compared to (The Grateful Dead will release four archival concerts on their Dave’s Picks series in 2014, not counting whatever else Rhino chooses to release) but as long as they’re of this high a quality, they’re worth waiting for.




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