After a long journey from Brecon to Bad Doberan, the first delight was the exposition on Jimmy Carl Black near the ‘Arf Society’ office. Featuring a huge collage of album covers, a video installation and several of his sculptures, the event provided a thoughtful start to this year’s festival. Having sadly died last year, the affection that Jimmy is held in was really touching, and as this was my first Zappanale, a genuine surprise. It is fantastic how ex FZ alumni are given the respect they deserve during these three days, a factor that must be responsible for the growing numbers of ex players’ attending. After leaving the exhibition (which also featured some fabulous Zappa influenced art work from Helmut King), my first musical experience was the ‘Paul Green School of Rock’ at Kamp Bad Doberan. This ‘Rolling Stones’ influenced gig led me to speculate why the UK or indeed other European counties don’t have a similar widening participation venture, where any young person can begin to learn the important repertoire of the popular music canon. Any project that can encourage young musicians to play Zappa’s music (which they did on day 2 of the official festival) has to be paid a great deal of respect. Food for thought when I get back to university. It is apparent that Zappa’s bust, which adorns the town, is small in size, but large in significance, as the freedom inherent in his music is somehow captured in the broad smile that adorns its face. This freedom was of course something the East German people did not enjoy until the demise of the Berlin Wall in November 89, a factor that makes this festival and Zappa’s joyful disposition all the more meaningful.
On day one, on the ‘main stage’ campus, ‘Captain Cheesbeard and the Children of Prevention’s’ outstanding contribution set the standards for the rest of the festival, with a line up mainly reminiscent of the 74 Roxy era. In addition to numerous faithful renditions of Zappa’s catalogue, they also performed their own arrangements of tracks like ‘City of Tiny Lights’ and ‘Outside Now’ – very impressive. This playful adaptation of Zappas’s music was continued with ‘Jazzproject Hundehagen’s’ reggae version of ‘Muffin Man’. Brilliantly fronted by their guitarist leader, they also played 2 amazingly accurate Mahavishnu Orchestra pieces, with the violin giving the Zappa arrangements an interesting edge, while also authenticating the Mahavishnu pieces. For me, the first day was highlighted by a brilliant Steve Hillage set that reminded me, like Zappa, how original he is as a guitarist, a factor that seems to be lost with many of today’s generation of virtuosos. I was lucky enough to interview him after the gig, where we had the opportunity to discuss topics such as the importance of ‘Hot Rats’ to his musical development (in particularly ‘It Must Be A Camel’ – which he sung note for note) and how Zappa’s comparing of the first Gong gig in 1969 gave the festival special significance. More on this later. A penultimate highlight of day 1 was ‘Project Object’, an American band coordinated by Andre Cholmondeley and this year featuring alumni such as Ike Willis, Don Preston, Denny Walley, and Bobby Martin. The availability of these musicians provides another dimension to the festival, as it engrains a dimension of authenticity that can only come from ex side men. To see these musicians playing with local musicians in particular was a real delight and is a process reminiscent of the practice of established American jazz musicians ‘spreading the word’ when performing with local musicians across Europe. A process that is still common today.
Day 2 commenced with a fascinating discussion on ‘Billy The Mountain’ by Jim Cohen followed by an interview with myself at the ‘Kamptheater’ in Bad Doberan, enabling me to discuss some of my research at Zappanale for the first time. This was followed by a visit to Warnemunde Beach near Rostock, one of several in the area and a great way to give family members some ‘Zappa respite’! Even returning to the campus at 6.30 enabled me to catch three fantastic sets. The first by ‘Sheik Yerbouti’, who periodically featured Napoleon Murphy Brock, Bobby Martin and Danny Walley. This set was punctuated by another moving tribute to ‘The Indian in the Group’ – Jimmy Carl Black. Throughout the festival his presence was tangible, and the 30 second silence was adhered to by the majority of those attending. This was followed by the amazing Gong, celebrating 40 years together, and the first band I ever saw live as a young boy in the mid 70’s – a gig that changed my perceptions of music forever. The day was completed by ‘Sex Without Nails Bros’, in a set that featured more outstanding musicianship and a genuine snapshot of what a real Zappa gig may have sounded like live. This is of course something that would be lost forever if it were not for Zappanale and some of the incredible acts that have performed here over the last 20 years.
Like several other performances throughout the festival, ‘The Grande Mothers’ set from the final day featured ex alumni from incongruent generations, a ‘conceptual continuity’ gesture that I am sure Zappa would have approved of. As this band have been performing in various guises for the best part of 30 years, they have a special aura about them, with two of the early Mothers Of Invention line up (Don Preston and Roy Estrada) indicating real lineage. The final day finished with a fabulous Terry Bozio set, who was later inaugurated as an honoree member of the Arf Society.
All in all, this initial Zappanale represents by far the best music festival I have ever been to, and it was a real honor to be asked to contribute in the very small way I did. In addition to the events outlined above, this year also offered an opportunity to rub shoulders with ‘The Amazing Mr Bickford’, who was working on clay models in front of my eyes! God willing, I hope this will be the first of many visits, where in addition to checking out more music and speaking to likeminded colleagues, I will have the opportunity to live in ‘Zappa Land’ for three days – can’t wait until next year.
PS: As an added bonus, I bolted a visit to Berlin onto the end of my trip, and managed to find time to visit Frank Zappa Strasse – a street in the east part of the city named after the man himself. The site is a council block tenement and houses one of the largest rehearsal spaces in Europe. Well worth a visit for the enthusiasts amongst you.