As the tour makes its stop at the Tower Theatre, site of the initiation of the panty-gathering ritual in 1980 (as FZ mentions in the intro to this show), it's inevitable that things will continue to loosen up. The show is tight and energetic: Ike is in an especially animated mood, joking a lot during songs; the "Black Page" solo continues to get more expansive (and the head is solid enough to be released on MAJNH), and Bobby Martin officially becomes Robert Martin after a mere six and a half years of employment in the band. However, on this first night, the setlist is too standard for the show to make it to the next level, at least on tape, though "OCLT Medley" is an exceptional rendition of a familiar piece; it's possibly more aggressive than the MAJNH take, with Ike throwing in some of the words to the familar theme and FZ and Chad getting explosive during the "Oh No" solo.
There are always a few deviations from the norm, though. One of the alltime moments of this show comes with FZ's "Pound" excursion; it will probably remain a mystery why he had "The Girl From Ipanema" on his mind tonight, but the solo is somehow reflective and anarchic at the same time, and should have been released. The other comes with "Uncle Remus," which gets a greater crowd response (at least judging from my audience tape) than the other debut of the night, "Bobby Brown." I can only imagine what Foggy G might say about that last factoid, but nothing needs to be said about FZ's decision to revive this surprising and unjustly neglected album cut, which of course would disappear again soon enough.
February 13, 1988 Philadelphia
Less than two weeks into the tour, and Frank and Co. whip out one of the most balanced and enjoyable shows of the tour. The setlist is near perfect, with a nice mix of instrumentals and vocals, short songs and long songs, monster songs and guitar solo vehicles. Plus, Frank throws in some of the smoothest segues he would ever conjure. The show is not without its flaws, of course (Frank's competent yet uninspired solos do nothing; the Monster song solos are still too short), but these are all problems that would persist throughout the duration of the tour. Despite this, the result is an interesting and enjoyable Saturday night in Philadelphia.
Right off the bat, it is clear that Frank is in a good mood, and that this is going to be a fun show. The opening "Stinkfoot" contains two birthday sing-alongs to audience members (Seth and Mike), and a typically good solo (I love that two-chord vamp). Frank begins joking around during the band introductions, and continues doing so into "We're Turning Again," during which he does something on stage that gets a HUGE laugh out of Ike. (I mean HUGE. The levels on my tape nearly double at this point.) "Why Don't You Like Me" and "Bacon Fat" (with original lyrics) both help continue the upbeat attitude, before "Stolen Moments" provides us with the first heavy musical moments of the night. We get two horn solos (both too short but the second one quite sweet nonetheless), and then we head off into the jam of the night. Synclavier and percussion take over, starting off nice and calm, before building in loudness, randomness and intensity. A wave of noise suddenly crashes onto the stage, providing the darkest moments in this otherwise lighthearted show.
After a short bass solo and closing theme bring "Stolen Moments" to a calm end, "Ain't Got No Heart" and "Love Of My Life" serve as the perfect anecdote to the preceding intensity, illustrating Frank's expertise at establishing contrast and relief in his setlists. Finally, two excellent song choices containing somewhat average solos ("Heavy Duty Judy" and "Zomby Woof") close the set and bring us to intermission (and may I add that the latter is not a good choice as a set closer).
The second set starts off with one of the best four-song series of the tour. Introduced by Diva, a riotous "Chawna In The Bushwop" opens the set, complete with a horn solo and Frank flubbing the lyrics. A rare early-in-the-set "I Am The Walrus" follows - performed flawlessly as always - which supplies us with the first great segue of the night. As they reach their peak in the rising climax of the tune, the horns effortlessly slide into "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue," sending chills down this listener's spine as we revisit a long-forgotten song last performed 14 years earlier. We get two horn solos, another first-rate Keneally solo, a well-paced and thought-out Martin solo, some drums and percussion, and, of course, some Synclavier. During the first Synclavier jam, slow and atmospheric, we get a subdued "Punky's Whips" quote which elicits an "Isn't it romantic?" from Ike. During the second Synclavier jam, just when things are at their quietest, Keneally rips into the music and brings us full throttle into "Jezebel Boy." Not a great song (only performed this once), but the segue is so powerful that it makes the song work. The remainder of the set continues along enjoyably, highlighted by an in-yer-face "I've yet to play guitar this whole set so be prepared" Frank solo during the abbreviated monster "Big Swifty." Finally, the set closing "Advance Romance" (another poor choice in set closers) delivers a quite boring (but lengthy) solo.
The encores are fun, but despite the sweet set list, do not contain anything special. Frank does absolutely nothing with his "Watermelon" solo, though it is a treat to hear the full-blown horn treatment (though there is no comparison with the original). Dweezil takes the whole cake in the "Whipping Post" solo, and probably turns in the best solo of the night (and I am not a Dweezil fan). "Strictly Genteel" amends all boo-boo's, and sends us home with a smile on our face (and once again thirsting for Hawaiian punch).
While the show has its flaws, its overall effect is positive. The song selection is mostly excellent, consisting of songs rarely played on this tour, with their placement in the sets almost perfect. The show could have used a little more Secret Word usage ("Ed Meese" and "Seth" appear sparingly), and Frank's solos could have been better; but, on the whole, a successful outing.
February 14, 1988 Philadelphia
The final night at the Tower Theatre and the atmosphere resembles a Palladium show in NYC, replete with FZ accepting gifts from the audience and beseeching them not to ask him to sign things so that he can start the show. As a result, we get a good deal of funny business during the show, including the infamous Brother A. West bit during "Pound" (which appears on Best Band), and the set of requests FZ gets from Den Simms at the start of set II, including crowd conducting and a dance version of "Approximate." All of this, along with tonight's secret word "Bubbles The Chimp," has a strong influence on the character of the show, sometimes to its detriment : the Republican Medley songs receive their sloppiest performances so far. Still, lots of fun.
Only a bit of this outrageousness carries over into the instrumental music, but FZ wails during the "Tiny Lites" and "Torture" solos, getting into some sick terrain with his effects. The other surprising moment is "King Kong," with some involved FZ conducting, including Synclavier duets with the horn players, rather than the usual straightahead string of solos. "Zoot Allures," the only debut this evening, has one of the most aggressive solos found in this song in '88 or perhaps ever, possibly because of Ike's rhythm chopping (more of a straight-eighth feel than reggae) and Keneally's not-subtle-enough-this-time sinister church organ.
All in all, the Tower Theatre run provides many of the wildest moments of the U.S. tour; we can hear the band getting an increasingly large repertoire under its belt, taking chances and coming closer to the fabled zaniness of old than any of the previous 80's lineups.
For the most part, this is your standard U.S. '88 show. Not bad by any means, but there isn't much in either the setlist or the performances to make this a memorable outing. The first set has only a few surprising details; the band gets some mileage out of the "tunafish" secret word (as well as some leftover "Bubbles" references), "When The Lie's So Big" has a different patriotic interlude in place of "Happy Days Are Here Again," and "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk" now lacks the "Twilight Zone" monologue. "Lucille" sounds almost comical this time (I can't say that I would have minded if they'd pursued this approach further), with an unexplained "Happy Birthday" at the end. An average "King Kong" has some good Bruce Fowler trombone as well as another loop-fueled FZ extravaganza with "Ipanema" motives which, once again, ends too soon.
It's FZ's guitar performances that make this show worth checking out. "Hot Plate Heaven" has an exceptionally spacy solo including the old "Sheik Yerbouti Tango"/"The Squirm" motive and yet another "Ipanema" reference (and am I dreaming or does FZ quote "Smoke On The Water" at the end of the "Trouble" solo?), while "Inca Roads" finds Zappa taking a gentle acoustic approach, perhaps realizing that he'll never top the 70's extrapolations on this vamp. The one truly newsworthy moment is the debut of "Cruising For Burgers"; here the reflective approach makes sense in a song where FZ does have a shot at topping all previous versions, and this first '88 performance practically does just that. Oddly enough, the energy in this song carries over into the following encore, "Crew Slut"; in this usually-forgettable number, FZ inserts some pointed political comments ("Who the fuck is Ed Meese/Lynn Nofziger/Ronald Reagan?") and then turns in a fiery solo including references to "While You Were Out" and "T'Mershi Duween." Further proof that no Zappa show is entirely worth ignoring.
February 17, 1988 Hartford
"Stinkfoot" opens the set, with an inspired solo; rather laid back, but very melodic and some really nice chord playing. "Alien Orifice" proves that the band has become really tight by now and features a good solo. Next, we get three songs that would soon nearly disappear from the setlists: "Why Don't You Like Me," "Bacon Fat" and "Stolen Moments." The last-mentioned is one of the most odd arrangements of this tour: it starts off with the beautiful theme in a very smooth style, followed by a equally smooth solo from the horn section, but then it's off to experimental land, continously based on the chord progression. This version is not too far out, unfortunately; we get good solos by the old buddies Thunes and Mann and some more horns.
Just before his solo in "City Of Tiny Lites," FZ sings "Got a Black Magic Woman" and starts the solo with some licks that sound familiar - a Santana quote, or does he just refer to the secret CS chord progression? Rather pedestrian solo, though.
Once again, "Pound For A Brown" becomes the highlight of the show, though it's relatively short. After the theme, Bobby Martin goes first with a Duke-ish solo - quite good, though it feels a bit routine. Next comes Paul Carman (I think) with a really hot solo (which the audience recognizes), before it's time for the big guitar event of the show: FZ triggers tonight's loop, as usual a minimalistic "vamp", inspiring FZ to produce some beautiful lines. Soon, Chad and Scott joins in with some improvised, laid-back accompaniment and the outcome is great, nearly reminiscent of the 1978 "Yo Mama"s. This is the kind of thing I hoped Trance Fusion would be about. "Cosmik Debris" nearly becomes anticlimatic when it interrupts the improvisations way too early, and the solo is pretty boring.
At the beginning of the 2nd set, while FZ communicates with the audience, the band starts teasing "Punky's Whips" in the background; sadly, it doesn't become more than just a tease. "Any Kind Of Pain" emerges out of nowhere in the middle of the set, feeling kind of odd out of its usual context, but the solo is beautiful as usual. The "Torture Never Stops" medley is pretty amusing with FZ in a good mood, making fun of both Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson ('you can sit on my face, where's my oxygen mask?'). We get the minor version of "Bonanza" and a lengthy FZ solo which ain't too bad, but goes nowhere. I dig the '88 arrangement of "Torture," but the solo excursions are just mere shadows of the 1977/78 epics.
"Joe's Garage" is played with the "years was rolling by" ending, featuring Mike Keneally as Mrs. Borg. We get a nice set of encores with "Watermelon" and "Peaches" (mmmm...fruit salad) followed by Eat That Question and Black Napkins. "Watermelon" is beautiful as always, though not one of the most memorable versions. "Eat That Question" has Mike doing some funny extensions to the opening organ licks, and the segue into "Black Napkins" is brilliant. For some reason, "Napkins" always works best as show closer. We get a beautiful trumpet solo and a great, more experimental tenor sax solo before it's time for Frank's last effort for tonight. Somehow, this final solo becomes significant for the whole show (and many of the Feb. shows): quite good, but could've been a bit more extravagant and daring.
On the first night in Boston, FZ announces that the show will be tailored to appeal to musicians since they're playing near the Berklee School Of Music, but he doesn't do himself many favors with the setlist, which (aside from the "Sinister Footwear" pre-opener and the "What's New In Baltimore" set 2-closer) is entirely standard. At least FZ is in good shape guitarwise, providing extensive solos on most songs. ("Tiny Lites" is especially good, with FZ leading Thunes on some harmonic chases, although FZ's following "Pound" outing doesn't amount to much.) The horns also have a good night; between "Pound" and "Stolen Moments," all five of them get a chance to supply some jazz action. [Keneally's diary reveals the story behind an amusing Paul Carmen quote in the "Stolen Moments" solo.]
The second half of the show benefits from some tomfoolery; FZ pulls out the "MTV" version of "Trouble Every Day" (cf. the Does Humor Belong In Music? CD) and Scott Thunes throws in some unexpected harmonic shifts in the solo, eventually turning it into a blues. The show ends on an amusing note as Robert Martin blows the words in "Advance Romance," prompting FZ to extend the encore ("We have to stay after school after that one"). Ed Mann interjects some well-timed PMRC samples and sound effects in "Stairway To Heaven," continuing a trend begun around 2/14.
A solid, fun show, and the audience comes across livelier than any so far on my tape. Still, it's fortunate that the Jimmy Swaggart incident arrived to prevent the tour from settling into too much of a routine, a danger evident since the end of the Philly run.
February 20, 1988 Boston
A Saturday night in Boston, and as Buzby would say, Frank once again demonstrates why no Zappa show is entirely worth ignoring. On the whole, this final Boston show is a pretty lackluster effort, with a rather lifeless set list, and only minimal Secret Word usage ("just the tip!") to divert our attention from the routine performances. But hidden amongst the rubble, in the least likely of places, one stumbles across some genuinely interesting musical moments.
The first set is the better of the two sets, yet still only contains two really magical moments. The "Inca Roads" guitar solo is- surprise! - quite good, with Frank managing to tweak some aggressive sounds out of his thin guitar tone. Thunes (who shall go nameless elsewhere on the internet) deserves recognition for his unorthodox yet interesting support. The single monster song of the show, "Big Swifty", finds Frank giving the horn players more room than usual to stretch out. The results are excellent. After the first horn solo, the Synclavier essentially takes over, dictating the feel of the jam with random noises and samples. All the while, Wackerman is thrashing away aimlessly, Thunes is laying down some thick support, and the horn players are freely blowing. This structured chaos culminates in a lengthy reggae jam that Albert Wing passionately soars over. Of course, all this is topped off by a forceful and aggressive FZ loops solo.
The second set, ridiculously short at just over 30 minutes, is saved from complete failure by an experimental "Truckdriver Divorce" guitar solo and the tour premiere of the always enjoyable "Outside Now". These two songs, coupled with the "Why Don't You Like Me?" which separates them, create an interesting series of musical segues in the midst of an otherwise bland set. The opening "Find Her Finer" is a nice song choice, but the remainder of the set consists of rather tired and uninspired tour oldies.
Finally, the encores start off promising enough with "Yo Cats", which Ike sings to prerecorded music, while the rest of the band pretends to play along. "Strictly Genteel" eventually appears, apparently to wrap things up (and as YCDTOSA VI attests, is there a better way?), but Frank then ruins the mood by tacking on a lackluster "Illinois Enema Bandit". But then again, this is only typical of the way things go with this tour.