ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. -- The star at center stage, his dark hair slicked behind his ears, works a wild rock riff on an electric guitar. The flute and synthesizer behind him shriek in sync, notes weaving into three-part harmony. A pounding percussion whirls.
The tension crests and resolves, 5,000 or so roar, and as the final notes of "Advance Romance" come crashing down, Dweezil Zappa -- a smaller, more neatly scrubbed version of his famous father, the late, great counterculture rocker Frank Zappa -- takes a deep and humble bow.
Dweezil Zappa -- and yes, that is his legal name -- is grateful for the adulation that fans have for his father's work, which spanned three decades, filled 80 albums and embraced genres from classical to doo-wop and jazz. That's why the guitarist and former teen actor is leading a worldwide concert tour in tribute to the musician and thinker who made the term Freak Out! a generation's call to arms.
"These folks have followed Frank for 40 years," Dweezil says. "I hope they enjoy the fruits of [our band's] labors."
What really pleases Zappa is a glance into the crowd, where teens, many in T-shirts that scream "Sheik Yerbouti!" and "Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar!" -- album titles his father turned into catchphrases -- bop alongside middle-aged fans. "There are lots of kids here tonight, aren't there?" he says, picking out a fan in the front row. "How old are you, little girl? Ten? That's what I call good parenting."
"Let's feed the beast," he says, invoking one of his father's favorite images. He stomps out a new rhythm, and the musical tornado starts up again.
Dweezil Zappa, 37, emerges from a tour bus near the stage, rubs his eyes and sits down to recount why he decided three years ago to kick-start the Tour de Frank -- which arrives in Baltimore, the town of his father's birth, Thursday night.
Simply said, the world needs it.
"These days, people pretty much listen to music while they're doing something else," says Zappa, whose band, Zappa Plays Zappa, played Columbus the night before, its eighth show in nine days. "Frank had a quote back in the '80s, that music had become 'wallpaper for your lifestyle.' It's like an accessory, an ID tag for who you are. That was never truer than it is now."
Teens and pre-teens, listening to whatever's on the radio or on MTV, "know the instant gratification part of music," he says. "You know, getting the right hairdo, the right tattoo ... but I don't think they understand what it means to be a musician, or the genuine craft of music."
When prostate cancer claimed Frank Zappa in 1993, at age 52, Time magazine called him "a musical renaissance man for the rock era." At a time when the boundaries of rock were being challenged, music critic Drew Wheeler wrote, "Zappa merrily twisted them into Mobius shapes, creating an unheard-of rock sound that blended intricate rhythms, R&B; harmonies, free-jazz saxophones and novelty-song vocals" with elaborate, "blues-meltdown guitar soloing."
Dweezil, who recalls a boyhood in southern California in which he shyly visited his father as he worked long hours in the studio, couldn't agree more.
"Casual fans see Frank as this strange, funny guy, like a Weird Al Yankovic," Dweezil says. "He used humor, of course -- he was absolutely a hilarious guy, and songs like 'Valley Girl' and 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow' are great -- but they don't scratch the surface of one-eighth of what he did. He was serious about his work, and his music is savagely underappreciated."
If it's ironic that a long-haired guy named Dweezil -- the name comes from a nickname Frank had for one of his wife's toes -- is playing the role of musical conservator, it doesn't seem to bother him. He has spoken often, and emotionally, of his fear that his father's music "could disappear within my lifetime."
He felt it critical to give older fans another glimpse and younger ones a chance to be exposed to his father's canon.
"Live performance is the only proper setting for experiencing this material," he says. "That's why we're so meticulous about getting it right."
To that end, he spent two years cocooned in a studio, studying his dad's musical catalog. He hired seven multi-instrumentalists -- including guitarist Ray White, Frank's bandmate in the 1970s and 1980s -- who he felt had the vision to recapture it. He culled three hours' worth of material that "defines what made Frank different" and that reflects "the trajectory of his career"-- from early psychedelic satire ("Son of Suzy Creamcheese") to rock-opera ("Joe's Garage") to instrumental stunners ("G-Spot Tornado," a composition so complex that Frank Zappa himself never expected it to be played on the guitar).
Zappa Plays Zappa rehearses two hours before most concerts. It has to. The band works hard to replicate musical nuances that shift as continuously as cars and trucks weaving through freeway intersections.
"I compare what we do to the Cirque du Soleil," says Dweezil, a guitar wizard in his own right who had to master new techniques to play his dad's stuff. "The acrobatics can be very difficult."
The early returns say they've been pulling it off. "Of all the tribute bands appearing in rock venues these days," wrote critic Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Zappa Plays Zappa may be the most heartfelt -- and the most necessary."
As the sun sets over this outdoor theater in suburban Detroit, Dweezil, in crisp white button-down shirt, guides an organized chaos of vibes and keyboards, belting out a signature Zappa line: "As we jammed in Joe's garage, his mama was screaming, 'Turn it down!'"
Baltimore music fans long ago claimed Frank Zappa as a native son, just as they have Billie Holiday, Ric Ocasek of the Cars and others who lived here for a time before moving on. Zappa was born here in 1940, the son of a Sicilian-born mathematician, Francis Zappa, who worked in chemical warfare research at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Before the family left for California when Frank was 10, images of germ warfare and gas masks -- Zappa's dad kept some around the house -- had already seeped into his consciousness, only to reappear in songs throughout his career.
If it all sounds like a grisly introduction to life, Dweezil says his father loved returning to his hometown. A longtime member of Frank's security crew also was born here, and the pair often swapped the latest news and inside jokes about Charm City.
Zappa didn't start composing here, but his imagery was often so warped that it wouldn't have been out of place in a John Waters film. His widow, Gail Zappa, says both are "so Baltimore" that someone should create a joint project. Her husband never tired of skewering convention -- religious zealotry, fads, government -- or of the verbal playfulness that gave rise to album titles like Freak Out! (1966) and Bongo Fury (1975).
Dweezil has only visited Baltimore once, with Z, a band he played in with younger brother Ahmet -- but this week he will perform "What's New in Baltimore?" in the show at Ram's Head Live Thursday night.
What's more, Mayor Sheila Dixon has declared Aug. 9 Frank Zappa Day.
"What's new in Baltimore?" says Dweezil, quoting the song's lyrics. "I'll have to go back and find out."
Fans will be treated to some poignant moments, including the life-size screening of a video of Frank Zappa jamming to "Cosmik Debris." Father and son go note for note, the past swapping guitar licks with the present.
"That part is thrilling and surreal, but also melancholy," says Dweezil, who was 24 when his father died.
"It's something that's very cool to have in your show," his mother adds. "It's charming and lovely and emotionally difficult for all of us. ... I hear him playing from the soul of his being [in those moments], in the same way Frank did.
"Dweezil, like all of us, feels very connected to Frank. I see [the tour] as a love affair."
If the loss of his father is still painful, one senses Dweezil helps assuage it through immersion. Studying Frank's 16-track master tapes has been like a walk through his dad's creative process.
And that evokes happy memories of a childhood that was, Dweezil says, a lot more normal than some may believe. The Zappa offspring -- daughter and eldest child Moon Unit, followed by Dweezil, Ahmet and daughter Diva -- have avoided the trouble that celebrity families often face.
Taking after a dad who virulently opposed drug use, Dweezil says he has never been intoxicated or smoked a cigarette. Frank's fanatical work habits kept him in his home studio for long hours when he wasn't traveling, and Gail ran the Zappa business affairs out of the family home. "Our parents were always there," Dweezil says.
It made for memorable times. Once, the kids were playing "Sniglets," a game in which players make up words "that should exist, but don't." Dweezil tried to coin one that captured a person who can't leave the house unless he's wearing a rock-and-roll T-shirt.
"Insignoramus," Frank said without missing a beat.
"Always a fertile mind," says Dweezil.
Zappa all over
It's late in the three-hour show, and as psychedelic lights swirl behind them, Zappa Plays Zappa raises a new cyclone of a beat.
A guitarist, Jamie Kime, cranks up a solo and moves to face Dweezil, who matches him, adding to the evening's kaleidoscope of sound. "A TV dinner by the pool -- I'm so glad I finished school," Dweezil sings, voice echoing his dad's sarcasm, if not his baritone menace.
If the goal is to keep a legacy alive, it seems to be working.
The 10-year old girl down front is dancing. "Zappa lives!" cries a man nearby. Cheers roll down the hillside. The "Freak Out" lives on.
Sept. 5, 1969, in Los Angeles
Registered birth name:
Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa (hospital staff refused to enter the name "Dweezil," which he legally claimed at age 7)
MTV veejay (1980s); actor, Molly Ringwald's Pretty in Pink (1986) and Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Running Man (1987); composed and played theme music for The Ben Stiller Show (1992); co-host, with singer and ex-girlfriend Lisa Loeb, the Food Network cooking show Dweezil & Lisa (2004); created eight albums, including Shampoohorn (1994) and Go With What You Know (2006)
Married to fashion stylist Lauren Knudsen
Once romantically linked with:
Katie Wagner (daughter of Robert Wagner), Sharon Stone and Lisa Loeb
Guitar idol growing up:
Eddie Van Halen
Frank Zappa albums he recommends for beginners:
Freak Out! (1966), Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Apostrophe (') (1974)
On growing up Zappa:
"To rebel in my family, you'd have had to become an accountant or a lawyer or, at the very worst, a record company [executive]."
IN CONCERT Zappa Plays Zappa -- 8 p.m. Thursday -- Rams Head Live -- 410-244-1131 or ramsheadlive.com
ONLINE Hear Dweezil Zappa discuss his father's legacy at baltimoresun.com / listeningpost