This show falls in the middle of a long stretch of one-nighters without many surprises in the way of Secret Words or unusual songs. But, like most of them, it gets by thanks to some inspired improvisations. FZ kicks off the show with a furious "Black Page" solo (the spoken preludes to both sets are missing from my tapes, so if there was any funny business someone else will need to fill in the details), and he turns in an exceptionally spacy "Hot Plate Heaven" extrapolation. (This song offers another exceptionally spacy gesture when FZ leads the vocalists into the wrong verse after the solo, leading to a premature coda which catches FZ by surprise.) The rest of set one leans heavily on oldies, including the tour premiere of "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing."
Set two offers a long, notable "Torture" solo, with FZ taking a harsher approach than usual in '88. A super-extended "King Kong" featuring a rare Thunes solo at the end over FZ's loops. But the biggest shock of the set occurs in "Stairway To Heaven," where, for the first time, we get a full-fledged, bona-fide FZ solo over the closing vamp, a couple of minutes of typical '88 acoustic noodling, before Keneally and the horns come in with their Jimmy Page homage.
Plus, we get one of the more surprising encores of all time : "Watermelon" followed by "America The Beautiful." "America" is perhaps the apex of FZ's tendency towards perplexingly unironic cover versions in the 80's; it's a straightforward R & B interpretation that comes as a surprise amongst all the political protest of this tour. However, listening to Robert Martin's Ray Charles-influenced vocal stylings and FZ's burning guitar solo, it's easy to stop worrying about the intentions behind this cover. One of the hidden gems of the tour.
Perhaps FZ had something to get off his chest tonight, or perhaps it was serendipity. In any case, Rochester saw one of the more fiery guitar nights of the U.S. tour. Each of FZ's breaks hits home; there are no halfway efforts. In particular, "Hot Plate Heaven" (more "out" than ever, thanks partly to some harmonic trickery from Thunes, and without the lyric mistake from Buffalo) and "Oh No" show FZ bringing out the old "Rat Tomago" method of building a solo - start with a pointed motive, and then whip the rhythm section to a point where they will never let the momentum drop (although there appears to be a serious train wreck in the rhythm section in "Oh No," an extreme example of the phenomenon Keneally mentioned in his entry about the Poughkeepsie show). "Inca Roads" works tonight in a way that the '88 versions rarely do, and "Chunga's Revenge" is hot enough to make one not understand why this would be the only '88 version aside from the London duet with Dweezil.
The other treat for tonight is "Big Swifty" as the Monster Song - a welcome contrast to the barrage of "Pound"s and "King Kong"s. This version features some of the most involved interaction between the horns and the Synclavier so far on the tour, foreshadowing "When Yuppies Go To Hell." Aside from that, and a couple of hints of "Bolero," there are no major surprises here. But, as most people reading this page already know, a standard '88 band performance is still a remarkable one, especially by March, and when FZ's guitar work is in a condition this good, there can be no complaints.
After rolling along smoothly for a week or two, the '88 band seems to hit a speed bump with this show. Set one is plagued by mistakes and fails to make much of an impression, despite some enjoyable FZ solos and the always welcome "Stolen Moments." FZ ets things going in set two with his wild breaks on "Zoot Allures" and "City Of Tiny Lites" (Chad goes nuts!), and we get another long "Pound For A Brown"; there've been no Zappa solos in the Monster Songs for a while now, but this version does have the band interacting with the ominous Synclavier piece which appears near the end of "When Yuppies Go To Hell." The performance errors finally cause some amusement when FZ falters in "Mary Lou" and then, as he announces, gets a note from the audience saying that he should stay after school (cf. 2-19 Boston).
BTW, my tape includes this exchange among the audience before set 2 : "I saw Phish over there!" "Which fish - Thing-Fish?" According to a friend of the band interviewed in The Pharmer's Almanac, all four members of the Vermont ensemble attended this show, but the fact that one of their most celebrated early live tapes (also from Burlington) has this same date would seem to contradict that. Another mystery to be solved.
Before digging up the tapes from this show, I had a vague recollection that it was a good show. A glance at the setlist did not convince me, though - two or three songs with the potential of being great, but hardly enough to make a great show. But my recollection was right - this is a great show. FZ seems to be in a very good mood tonight, his solos are inspired and intense and the interaction with the band members is amusing.
The opening procedures of the show feel familiar, with FZ receiving some recognition from local election commisioners, then some communicating with the audience before ripping into "Stinkfoot." The solo reminds us about the Man's unpredictability as a guitarist; this becomes quite an experimental workout - cool, though at times, you almost wonder if he remembers what song he's playing.
Bobby asks us "Who Needs The Peace Corps?," and Mike has a problem keeping a straight face when FZ keeps interrupting his hippie monologue. Quite amusing, especially the "I will love everyone...(George Bush??)...I will love *almost* everyone" part. "Outside Now" becomes an early climax, beautiful as always with an excellent solo, but the real highlight of the show is "Truck Driver Divorce." The solo starts out pretty calm over the old reggae vamp, but the proceedings take a whole new turn after a while, as FZ starts playing around with the whammy bar and we get a long excursion of an intensity that matches the 1980/81 tours. Chad's playing is terrific, while Scott and Mike keep the structure. Terrific stuff - this should have been on Trance Fusion!
After this improvisational outburst, the composed nature of the "Packard Goose" medley is a welcome contrast, before it's time for another great guitar number, "Any Kind Of Pain." Very nice solo as always, and the song gets a funny twist as Zappa fills the "secret word slot" of the last verse with a mongoloid "Uuuuuh" - much to Ike's amusement, and the rest of the song is filled with mongoloid sounds. The abriged Republican Medley continues with "When The Lie's So Big" and "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk," and just before intermission, FZ scares us by saying "did you know that there's a possibility that you might......go to hell?!".
Set number two starts with good versions of the Eggman song and "City Of Tiny Lites," before it's time for the next climax, "Pound For A Brown." This version nearly defines the Jason- coined "monster song" term - long, totally unpredictable improvisational heaven! The solos start off as usual, with Bobby getting the funk out, before FZ gives us a lesson in spontaneous composition. He leads a little jam session with synclavier, drums and percussion, interspersed with conducted horns. Suddenly, the band bursts into a straight rock vamp where Mike gets a chance to shine, with a great guitar solo. As if this weren't enough, FZ triggers a guitar loop, over which we get a good sax solo, followed by a drum solo. Excellent stuff - for the first part of the tour, FZ had the bad habit of cutting the band improvisations rather short, but here we get full-length monstrosity.
We get a typical ending of the show with the Texas Motel Medley and "Sofa" followed by "Peaches," "Stairway To Heaven," "Joe's Garage"/"Why Does It Hurt?" and "The Illinois Enema Bandit." Compared to the highlights of the shows, the last 30 minutes sound a bit bland, but they are still inspired versions - especially IEB, where we get another very good solo from FZ and some joking about Eric Buxton and his shoe size.
Though there's no real secret word, FZ and Ike are in high spirits throughout the concert, and we get a good dose of humour. This, in combination with the great guitar solos and the "Pound For A Brown" improvisation makes this one of the best shows of the U.S tour, in my opinion.
Tonight's moment of distinction (as I've mentioned, few shows on this tour don't have at least one) occurs after a solid "Black Page" opener. Following one of the longest '88 episodes of FZ accepting gifts and reading notes from the audience, someone passes up a hymnal containing a tune called "Stainless The Maiden," and FZ has Robert sight-sing it. Needless to say, this odd little phrase turns up a few more times during the show, although this Secret Word, like most during the U.S. tour, doesn't get as much usage as some of the European models will in the coming months.
Apart from that, this is a standard show, with a list that gathers together most of the more common favorites from March '88, but without a single Monster Song (a genuine rarity for this tour). FZ puts an acceptable amount of energy into his solos (a fierce, melodic "Tiny Lites" excursion is the musical highlight of this evening) and throws in one surprising adlib ("Let's be sophmoric for a while!") during "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk." In general, though, this is a show that probably would have been fine to attend, but the "Stainless" event is the only major reason to get the tapes.
Two words: Chad Wackerman. While the rest of the band seems to have decided to make this a mellow, laid-back affair, turning in relaxed yet satisfying performances, the drummer decides to go a little crazy. Pulling off his best Vinnie imitation (thanks to Keneally for that point of reference), Chad spends the night playing hide-and-seek with the One, messing with Frank's casual solos, forcing some wicked energy into a very carefree evening. If you want a highlight for the show, then Chad's drumming is it.
Apart from this, the night's show is a very low-key affair. This looks like it is going to be a problem when Frank's "Stinkfoot" solo limps out of the starting gate. Thin, weak, no passion or energy. You figure Frank is going to call this one quits shortly, but no, he keeps playing and playing and playing. And as he keeps playing, you realize that yes, this is supposed to be a calm and gentle solo, and hey, it works. The set progresses, the energy levels never pick up, but it does not matter. The mood has been established, it is NOT going to be crazy one, and when that fact is accepted, the show takes on a wonderfully relaxing feel.
The second set's "Big Swifty" and "Filthy Habits" benefit greatly from this atmosphere, with the former generating some intensely calm improvisation, and the latter sounding all the more sinister in the midst of this musical stroll. For "Big Swifty," the Synclavier takes over the improvisation immediately upon entering the solo section, establishing a slow and spacey canvas over which the soloists paint. When Frank does insert bursts of energy throughout the jam, the contrast with the majority of the material creates a jarring yet interesting effect. When "Filthy Habits" finally rolls around, the opening riff sounds like nothing less than pure evil, and while Frank's solo is not all that interesting, the overall tone of the piece works nicely in this set.
This is not a great show, mind you, and there are portions of it which are quite uninspired. But thanks to an all-encompassing sense of "hey-let's-take-it-easy" among the performances, the end result is satisfying, with the overall effect being that of a very untypical '88 show. And once again, Wackerman simply rules.