Late rock icons from Roy Orbison to Ronnie James Dio have been returning to the stage on holographic tours, offering new fans the chance to see their heroes from beyond the grave. Frank Zappa would have surely approved of his own; he was genuinely fascinated by holograms until the end of his life.
In his 1989 memoir The Real Frank Zappa Book, he shared his vision for consumer-grade holograms. “I have an idea for a new device,” he wrote in a patent letter to Chicago attorney Arnold Silvestri. “[It would] generate free-standing 3-D images, in any size, on your coffee table at home, or on a stage for theatrical use.” He even came up with a company name: Intercontinental Absurdities.
Zappa’s business idea may have never come to fruition, but his holographic dream is getting its due. On Monday, (April 22), The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa hit the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey. The show combines holographic performances, surreal visuals and a live band of Zappa collaborators for a maximalist tribute.
The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa doesn’t just display his futuristic visions; it takes them to their goofy nth degree. During “Cheepnis,” “Dinah-Moe Humm” and “Stink-Foot,” an animated Zappa becomes, respectively, a singing hot dog, a sleazy, Boogie Nights-style porno actor and a nude, toilet-bound guitar slinger flailing through the starry heavens.
It’s one hell of a spectacle — and it couldn’t have been pulled off without old and new friends. The show is a joint effort between the Frank Zappa Family Trust and Eyellusion, a hologram production company that is simultaneously reuniting the late Ronnie James Dio with his Dio bandmates.
“It really takes you on the emotional journey that Frank was about,” Eyellusion co-founder and CEO Jeff Pezzuti tells Billboard. “But even if you know nothing about Frank, you’re still going to enjoy the show, just based on the visuals.”
The music will get under your skin just as much. The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa is powered by a hyperactive, virtuosic ensemble of past Zappa collaborators. Guitarists Ray White and Mike Keneally, bassist Scott Thunes, percussionist Ed Mann and drummer Joe Travers handle each harebrained instrumental curve with boyish, infectious enthusiasm.
But instead of curating a purists-only experience, each participant shared a common goal: ensnare new fans. Thunes, who was featured on albums like 1983’s The Man From Utopia and 1986’s Jazz From Hell, sees The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa as a cut above your average rock homage.
“Tribute bands just go out there and play their music, and it’s a very slow growth process,” Thunes tells Billboard. “This is in-your-face. This is huge. The goal is to literally please everybody.”
For the Zappa estate, this is a fresh camaraderie. Since Zappa’s passing in 1993, his heirs Dweezil and Ahmet have legally battled over who, exactly, gets to play their fathers’ music. Dweezil started the band Zappa Plays Zappa; when it got legal pushback from the family, he acerbically retitled his tour 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the Fuck He Wants —The Cease & Desist Tour.
The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa aims for a baggage-free vibe; happily, this music sounds like it’s for everybody. Near the end of the show, Ahmet grabbed the mic and joined the party, taking his father’s lead vocal for the 1970 Weasels Ripped My Flesh cut “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” and the 1979 rarity “Dead Girls of London.”
For all his quirks, the elder Zappa was a sober and analytical character; the risible Ahmet is his equal and opposite presence. He was a riot for his two-song cameo, prancing and preening until he fell flat on his back on the stage floor.
He also acknowledged the elephant in the room: that this hallucinogenic show opened the week of the druggiest day of the year. “On 4/20, people were tripping balls at this show,” he crowed about the tour’s second night, in Rochester, New York.
It’s all in goofy, harmless fun; The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa is a tour-de-force that unhinges the lid of its subject’s limitless imagination. After umpteen floating eyeballs, gyrating monsters and paint-peeling guitar solos, the crowd left the Count Basie Center pleasantly bewildered — and audibly satisfied. True Zappa heads wouldn’t have it any other way.
As his tour bus prepares to take off, he pauses to savor it all — and flashes a mischievous grin. “And he would love this. He would love it.”