The Zappa Band plays The Birchmere

The Zappa Band plays The Birchmere
The Zappa Band played at the Greek Theatre in August 2021 while opening for King Crimson. (Photo/Annie Lesser)

By Olivia Anderson |

One word to describe the late musician Frank Zappa is eccentric. Another might be irreverent, avant-garde or even kooky. But Zappa was also hailed as a highly esteemed pioneer in music – one who explored many genre corners while candidly weaving in his own views on censorship, free speech, organized religion and education.

Throughout the course of his storied 30-year career, the self-taught musician produced more than 60 studio albums, ranging from jazz to rock to doo wop. Zappa directed music videos and films and spoke several times about social activism following a 1985 testimony he presented before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on music censorship. Zappa was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his work.

Although he passed away in December 1993 at age 52, Zappa’s legacy has lived on through his music, fans and the many artists who played with him over the years.

Now, for the first time, the Zappa Band is launching a headlining tour across North America, with The Birchmere on Sunday as one of its stops.

The Zappa Band consists mostly of former members of Zappa’s previous bands. They include guitarist and lead vocalist Ray White; guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist Mike Keneally; bassist Scott Thunes; keyboardist, saxist and vocalist Robert Martin; guitarist Jamie Kime and drummer and vocalist Joe Travers.

Each musician played either in the studio and on the road with Zappa himself, or in Zappa Plays Zappa, a tribute band led by Zappa’s son Dweezil Zappa. White, who is the longest-standing member of Zappa’s band, told the Times that the group’s conception and subsequent tour came about organically.

The group opened for progressive rock band King Crimson in 2021 and were widely well-received. Because of the positive response and natural dynamic among the members, they wanted to keep playing together.

“The genesis for this tour came out of that, because when we came out the house was full for the opening act, which was unusual,” White said. “It was really cool. There was something happening. Then there was the move to do this tour, and it’s not a long tour, but it’s the beginning of something.”

Reflecting on the past

In 1976 White was playing with electric blues singer Lady Bianca, who recommended him to Zappa. White secured an audition, in which Zappa asked if he could sing.

“I told a big lie. I said, ‘a little bit,’” White, who now sings lead vocals with the Zappa Band, said. “The manager walks over, walks me across the big rehearsal floor, starts breaking down the pay and all that stuff. I had the gig and these guys were still trying out back there.”

Over the years, White got to know Zappa well, having recorded vocals on “Zappa in New York” (1978) and “You Are What You Is” (1981). He is also featured on “The Torture Never Stops,” a DVD from Zappa’s 1981 tour and “Does Humor Belong in Music?” a video filmed in 1984 at the pier in New York.

According to White, Zappa was known to have somewhat of a mercurial temperament that some people had trouble handling. The moodiness would emerge during particularly enervating times, such as two-plus hour soundchecks.

At one particular soundcheck, White made a mistake on stage which caused Zappa to get visibly frustrated. But White, who had grown accustomed to Zappa’s nuances and idiosyncrasies, knew exactly how to diffuse the situation.

“I said, ‘Oh, was that the same chord they played in “Stranded in the Jungle”?’ It’s this old 50s song. He goes, ‘Yeah! That was a great chord. That was a great song.’ And bam, he’s out of that dark place he was in,” White said.

Following many more similar instances of White pulling him out of a funk, Zappa started calling him “The Governor.” The name acknowledged White’s ability to mediate conflict among the other bandmates as well, who would occasionally engage in tiffs or disagreements.

“I don’t like controversy. I don’t like conflict. So, when the guys in the band would get into a conflict, I’d sort of worm my way into the middle of it and try to find peace,” White said.

According to White, although Zappa was a “hard taskmaster,” he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The June tour will mark the Zappa Band’s first-ever headlining tour.

“If you’re running a sprint, you don’t want to be in a race with people who run really slow. You don’t get pushed, and you don’t push them,” White said. “But if somebody’s ahead of the game a little bit in one area, and it’s difficult at first for you to grasp it, you have to keep trying and the more you push, the more determined you are to do this, and you rise to the occasion. He was good at that. He found everybody’s strength and those strengths were used in the ensemble.”

Zappa also had a very specific sense of humor, White recalled, often cracking jokes off stage and whispering jokes to bandmates on stage to make them laugh. While on tour in Southern France in the early 1980s, White approached the microphone to sing during a concert – only to hear Zappa yelling nonsense directly into his ears. 

White started to laugh, took a step back, and walked back up to the microphone. Zappa walked over a second time, said more nonsense, causing White to laugh again. He took a step back, walked back to the microphone a third time, and Zappa repeated his antics.

So, White took matters into his own hands and proceeded to lay down on the stage to perform. Zappa placed the microphone near White’s mouth, who performed the entire song on his back in the middle of the stage. 

He was making me laugh so I said, ‘Okay dude, I’m not doing this. I’m just going to lay down,” White said. “It was great. There was fun. There was a lot of fun.”

Honoring the legacy 

The tour, which began on June 12 and will run through June 26, provides an opportunity for longtime Zappa fans to relive the live concert experience and for those who never saw him to get a taste of what it might have been like. 

Some of the guys knew each other previously – Thunes and White played with Zappa at the same time, for instance – and others did not. Keneally actually took White’s place when he opted out of a tour in the 1980s. 

But throughout the tour, the six of them quickly developed a rapport. Thunes has a dry sense of humor, White said, “and it cracks me up because if you don’t understand it you’ll think it’s serious.”

Keneally is known as the sharing, loving one; Travers as kind and intentional, Kime as a true musician with a fluid, melodic sensibility; and Martin as the playful one who “was playing on almost every hit record that came out of Philadelphia back in the day.”

And White?

“I’m the only non-reader, so I have to figure things out in my own way. I have to hear it; just give it to me, don’t tell me the timing, just let me hear it,” White said. “So [we all] have our own way. They’re all good guys.”

Beyond their natural dynamic, the glue that holds the group together is Zappa’s music. Through the tour, White emphasized, the greater aim is to honor Zappa’s legacy and simultaneously provide an evening of unbridled entertainment.

From the set list, attendees can expect a combination of music from various albums throughout the years, as well as some added flourishes and creative spins from the Zappa Band. There will be expert-level playing and a whole lot of fun, White promised.

Because many Zappa songs included various arrangements, the rehearsal and touring experience has been a give and take in determining which Zappa arrangements to go with, and where to mix and match various components. White said this tour is just the beginning of carrying forward his memory. 

“There are so many ways to pay respect to his music, and it’s not just his music, it’s the music, period,” White said. “You feel so aligned. [It’s] being faithful and true to what you do, and having guys around you who allow you to do it.”

With this event marking the Zappa Band’s first time at The Birchmere, White had one main tip for concert-goers to maximize the experience:

“Think of being fluid. Don’t think of being static. Think of building a fire really slow. Now you’re there, together. It’s like having a really intimate moment. [The audience] gives in, they close their eyes, then they open their eyes and say, ‘Yeah, I get it,'” White said. “Man, you can’t get better than that.”

[Read more: The Four Bitchin’ Babes return to The Birchmere]