Album review: FRANK ZAPPA – Puttin’ On The Ritz





Gold Fish [Release date 02.06.14]

Good news, bad news. Available on CD for the first time, ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ is a brilliant Zappa concert, described by Guitar Player magazine as the: ‘Best Concert Ever By Anyone.’ The downside is this isn’t a Zappa family release and it’s hampered by moments of poor sound quality guaranteed to irk die-hard Zappa heads.

You pay your money you take your chance and for three quarters of this double set the sound is OK, but the middle of CD 2 suffers from various audio glitches and distortion that plagues the Al Di Meola /Zappa jam.

The band is breathtaking – Ray White guitar and vox, Steve Vai  guitar, Tommy Mars on keys,  Ed Mann on percussion, Chad Wackerman drums, Scott Thunes on bass, Bobby Martin on keys and sax (who is omitted in the perfunctory liner notes) and Zappa on several spine tingling solo’s. When he glues together the disparate sections of ‘Easy Meat’ with some stunning guitar you’re hooked. Even an audio glitch at the end of the solo can’t dampen the magnificence of his playing. It’s moments like this that make the segued songs on side one more than just an endless trawl through some mildly humorous and thinly linked satirical pieces.

‘Easy Meat’ sets the standard for an album full of road hardened arrangements that bring new colour and extended solo’s to a familiar early 80’s set list.

Ray White’s leads an tempo call & response section of ‘You Are What You Is’, as the band rips through the fastest ever performed version of the song. The pace is similarly unrelenting on the harmony led ‘Mudd Club’, which is punctuated by some wild percussion and Vai’s guitar slashes over a reggae beat.

‘Dumb All’ remains Zappa’s best ever rap song. He spits out his biting irony with real venom, clarity of diction and a guitar led resolution with the message that: “If we’re dumb then God is dumb, and maybe a little ugly on the side.”

A succession of sparkling solo’s over a whip chord rhythm section rescues the segued songs from drowning under their own weight, though it all gets a bit tiresome on ‘Heavenly Bank Account’ where having made the point that: ‘There’s a big difference between kneeling down and bending over,’ the rest of the synth laden piece adds little to the main message, save for his concluding plea that we should: “Tax the business’s owned by the churches.”

A surprisingly raw edged opening blues solo on ‘Suicide Chump’ is almost drowned by a bank of synths, but it’s counter-balanced  by Tommy Mars organ solo, a FZ note flurry and a hoarse baritone sax blast from Bobby Martin.

The audio quality noticeably improves on the jagged instrumental ‘Envelopes,’ and Zappa’s dense staccato solo on a ten minute version of ‘Drowning Witch’.

There’s some stunning band interplay on ‘What’s New In Baltimore’ with the melody stretched out by another sensational solo from Frank.  His string bends and tonal depth is suddenly segued into the percussion-heavy, link piece ‘Moggio’ and a Hammond-led blues, ‘Bamboozled By Love’, featuring a gut busting vocal from Ray White.

Guitar heads will probably head straight to CD2, track one, for the Zappa/Vai sparring on ‘Stevie’s Spanking’ and they won’t be disappointed, though immediately afterwards the audio quality deteriorates, distorting horribly on ‘Tryin’ To Grow A Chin’.

In sharp contrast, ‘Strictly Gentile’, is a real delight and Al Di Meola joins FZ for ‘Clowns On Velvet’ as part of a 30 minute encore. Rumour has it they didn’t actually play together because of technical problems, but whatever the truth, it is brilliant spontaneous music, though again hampered by distortion, which subsequently decimates a cover of ‘Ride Like The Wind’ and renders too much of disc two to poor bootleg status.

Ironically just when you are about to give up, it all magically clears on a bulldozing ‘Whipping Post’ and uplifting ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’. By the end it’s Zappa’s melodic masterpiece that lingers in the memory rather than the growing frustration with the indifferent sound quality. ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

David Randall plays a selection of new and classic rock in his weekly show first broadcast 14 June 2020 including reference to the Feature series “2020 Vision”.

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