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It's hard to believe in this modern age when hit songs are created from prepackaged sample collections, but not too long ago, audiences clamored for the innovative, mind-blowing music of Frank Zappa.

By turns witty social satirist, remarkable guitarist and innovative composer and producer, Zappa released a string of consistently genre-busting records in the '60s and '70s that wound jazz, avant-garde classical, raw rock & roll and even film scores into amazingly intricate and humorous works that proved smart could be stupid and vice-versa. Though he stumbled into pop hits like "Valley Girl" and "Dancing Fool" in the late '70s and early '80s, the 56 albums that Zappa recorded in his 27-year career — 19 more have been released since his death in 1993 — represented a real pinnacle for rock-as-art, with a collection of sounds that were as broad in influence as they were deep in experimentation. Yet, for some reason, too many people associate "Zappa" with the phrase "gag me with a spoon."

"His music has been overlooked by people for so long," says Dweezil Zappa, the elder's 37-year-old son. "A lot of young people have not heard Frank's music because it is not on the radio, except for accidental hits which misrepresented what he was about within the larger context of his body of work. People think of him as the guy with the kids with the funny names `Moon Unit, Ahmet` and songs like ‘Don't Eat the Yellow Snow.' But he recorded 75 records that covered some incredibly complex and sophisticated music which needs to be rediscovered, especially at this point in time. It is a good time for people to discover Frank's music."

Dweezil, an exceptional guitarist in his own right, has taken upon himself the task of exposing his father's more legendary material to contemporary crowds, performing the pieces with a band of hand-picked musicians who are either still in their 20s or longtime Zappa regulars like Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Steve Vai. "Zappa Plays Zappa" is a traveling show that covers the hits, the misses and everything in between.

"I think Frank's music is contemporary," Dweezil says, "and presenting it with younger players will change its perception in people's minds instead of a bunch of old guys onstage. It should be inspiring to see younger musicians playing this very difficult music. When we are playing a three-hour show of this hard stuff, it blows people's minds based on how well it is being executed, not to mention that we can remember it all."

Not only did Dweezil learn his dad's material, he learned songs that were never performed on guitar. Dweezil's band plays note-for-note renditions of classics like "Cosmic Debris" and "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast," a special treat for fans both young and old.

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"We know 40 songs now," he boasts. "Next year we will learn another 40. Over the next 10 years, who knows how many of Frank's songs we will know. We can cover a huge amount of his career, but what makes it different is that we are playing it as close to the actual record performance as possible. We play the right notes and the actual sounds from the records. It is the version that everyone knows, but never saw live. Frank tweaked the tracks live, and people are happy to see this version, it is the one they are most familiar with. It is their dream concert. And there are many surprises in store."

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More by Ken Micallef


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