Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show

Frank Zappa

Zappa Records, 2021

REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker


Zappa Records’ first archival release from 1988’s Broadway The Hardway tour is a superb recording of what the man himself dubbed “the best band you never heard in your life.” A 12-piece lineup featuring a cast of Zappa veterans and a few new faces, it includes core of his 1980s band in bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Chad Wackerman, and keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Martin; guitarist/vocalist Ike Willis best known for playing the title role in Joe’s Garage (1979); Walt and Bruce Fowler on trumpet and trombone for the first time since Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) as leaders of a five-piece horn section; long-time percussionist Ed Mann; and new stunt guitarist on the block, Mike Keneally. It is a sea of talent made all the more remarkable for the variety of songs it played. Compare the track list of Zappa ’88 to that of Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991), a compilation of performances from the same tour, and you’ll find only two songs that overlap (the classics of “Black Page” and “City Of Tiny Lights”).

Indeed, Zappa ’88 is the first entire Broadway The Hardway show from start to finish to be released, and what a setlist it has! Spanning 20 years from the Mothers Of Invention’s tongue-in-cheek “Who Needs The Peace Corps?” to “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk” and its satirical jabs at televangelists Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker of the 1980s, the band leaves no stone unturned. The choice of “The Black Page (New Age Version)” as an opener speaks to the lineup’s boldness on this tour. It's a jaw-dropper listening to Chad Wackerman take on Terry Bozzio's notoriously difficult composition on the drums, with a typical Zappa bent of humor to see some “New Age” added with the five-piece horn section playing lounge lizard fare early on. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Hearing Ike Willis take on his vocals from Joe’s Garage in the comic “Packard Goose Pt. 1 & 2” is a delight, and he fills Napoleon Murphy Brock’s shoes on the classic “Inca Roads” without a hitch. In fact he shares a lot of time at the mic with Zappa himself engaged in political satire particular to the 1988 tour, which saw voter registration tables at each show. “Dickie’s Such An Asshole,” rooted in the Watergate Scandal has been updated to skewer the likes of Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, while “When The Lie’s So Big” and “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk” attack televangelists of the time such as the scandalized Jim Bakker. But even in political satire, Frank Zappa acts as a great composer. Just listening to the vocal harmonies of Zappa, Willis, and Keneally asking “Now wouldn’t that sort of qualify as an American tragedy?” on the question of Pat Robertson becoming president sends chills down the spine.

Zappa’s smooth transition from political satire to new arrangements of old classics is one of the great strengths of this performance. Just listen to the cheers of surprise his political statements lead into a new take on “Sofa #1” led by the five-piece horns section. “Pound For A Brown” is far and away the best new rendition of a Mothers of Invention song written 20 years prior. An 11-minute jam, the Fowler brothers get to shine, birthday boy Chad Wackerman keeps listeners guessing with his changeups and has some time in the spotlight, and the new stunt guitarist in town Mike Keneally gets to wrap it up with a solo. On a related note, it is striking just how much time Frank Zappa himself spends soloing. For not having picked up the guitar from 1984 to 1987 during his fascination with the synclavier, he is absolutely smoking on this show.

A review of this album would not be complete without bowing to the incredible vocals of Bobby Martin, who absolutely wails – in the best sense of the term – in a smoking cover of “Whipping Post” and handles higher-pitched verses in other songs. There is something about the band’s take on “Stairway To Heaven” that captures quintessential Frank Zappa: loyal to the original in guitar and vocals yet littered with campy sound effects to irk Led Zeppelin loyalists in the first few minutes, with Zappa blazing a respectful path on his guitar solo followed by the five-piece horn section swooping in to handle the one we all know and expect. It’s sheer genius as Bobby Martin takes the song home handling its high-pitched outro vocals.

A top-notch performance by an immensely talented lineup, Zappa ’88 captures the man at his finest as a composer, a guitarist, and a satirist who blazed his own path. Liner notes detailing the history of a tour that imploded with ten weeks left to go and the recollections of drummer Chad Wackerman only add to the package. It is certainly among the best posthumous releases in the last ten years.

Rating: A

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