Music Reviews: Frank Zappa’s Final U.S. Concert, plus Ashley Riley, Richard X. Heyman, Raoul Vignal, and Nefesh Mountain

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Frank Zappa was as prolific as he was idiosyncratic. He checked out of this life early—a victim of cancer at age 52—but before he did, he released some five-dozen albums. Another 40 or so have followed posthumously and there’s no end in sight. The latest entry is a two-CD set that preserves most of a March 25, 1988, gig from Nassau Coliseum on New York’s Long Island. It wasn’t quite Zappa’s last live performance, but it did turn out to be his final concert in the United States.

Called Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show, the release offers two and a half hours of previously unreleased music, including 28 tracks from the Long Island event and two from earlier concerts that same month in Rhode Island and Maryland. The newly mixed selections feature a short-lived band of 11 multi-instrumentalists that is widely regarded as one of Zappa’s best and that showcases everything from sax, trumpet, and flugelhorn to clarinet, synthesizer, and marimba. Zappa archivist Joe Travers—who co-produced the set with the artist’s son, Ahmet—and drummer Chad Wackerman provide liner notes.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Zappa that showcases all sides of his music and personality, this career-spanning release will deliver what you’re after. It includes latter-period compositions as well as very early ones like “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” which first appeared on Freak Out!, the artist’s 1966 debut LP. 

No musician alive or dead has ever been more versatile than Zappa, and this concert set proves it. Where else can you find a record from one artist that embraces doo-wop (“Love of My Life”), classical music (Stravinsky’s “Royal March from ‘L’Histoire du Soldat,” Ravel’s “Bolero,” and the theme from Bartok’s “Piano Concerto #3”), and rock (Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”)—not to mention “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Theme from ‘Bonanza,’” and a show-closing “America the Beautiful”?

Zappa could shift between serious and silly as easily as he could segue from one musical genre to another. Like all concerts on this 1988 tour, the Long Island one begins with Zappa telling his audience that they can register to vote right there at the show and imploring them to do so during intermission. But the performance also includes lots of humor—some of it rather juvenile but much of it funny and biting. 

Witness Zappa’s Beatles medley, which makes its first official appearance on this album. This parody weds music from three Lennon/McCartney songs to lyrics that make fun of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who became embroiled in a prostitution scandal only weeks before Zappa delivered this concert. (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” for example, begins, “Picture yourself with a whore from New Orleans, with big purple welts all over her bod / Somebody calls and you answer quite slowly, it’s the board from Assembly o’ God”).

Chances are good you’ll enjoy this album. Love it or hate it, though, you’ll have to agree that there’s never been anyone quite like Frank Zappa.

 

Also Noteworthy

 

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Ashley RileySet You Free. Words like “gorgeous” and “heavenly” come to mind when you listen to this latest pop-folk release from Decatur, Illinois-based singer/songwriter Ashley Riley. This is the first album she has made with the help of a producer, and James Treichler, who filled that role, features a dreamy sonic backdrop that complements the singer’s vocals without ever upstaging them.

What most contributes to the album’s success, though, are those fabulous vocals, which exude intimacy, vulnerability, and passion. Another major plus is Riley’s program of 10 catchy, self-penned tunes, all of which seem to address matters of the heart. Listening to emotive, expertly crafted standouts like “One Way,” “Cut My Losses,” and “Starting Over,” you have to conclude that only two possibilities exist: either Riley becomes a star or there’s something seriously wrong with the music business.


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Richard X. HeymanCopious NotesThis 14th album from Richard X. Heyman—the follow-up to 2019’s Pop Circles—continues his successful love affair with power pop. Like much of his earlier work, this is a homespun affair, with Heyman playing many of the instruments, his wife adding bass, and the whole thing put together in their home studio. 

Granted, Heyman couldn’t turn heads just with his vocal work—he’s an ok but unexceptional singer—but that doesn’t matter much here; the vocals are simply another element in a richly textured pop-rock mix that’s permeated with infectious hooks and jingle-jangle guitar. You’ll hear fresh musical ideas as well as echoes of 1960s British pop and West Coast U.S. rockers like the Byrds.

 

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Raoul VignalYears in Marble. French singer-songwriter Raoul Vignal released his first full-length album four years ago and has since issued four more, including this mellow latest collection, which features his softly delivered vocals and fingerstyle acoustic guitar work. His gently delivered vocals and music have drawn a comparison to Nick Drake, and he also often sounds uncannily reminiscent of the Mark-Almond Band, the jazzy 1970s British folk group featuring Jon Mark and Johnny Almond.

 

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Nefesh MountainSongs for the SparrowsNefesh Mountain’s husband-and-wife founders, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, produced and wrote the music for this likable third album. Their band—which has roots in bluegrass and Americana but also incorporates enough Celtic and Eastern European influences to help it stand out in a crowded field—features strong vocal work by Lindberg and Zasloff along with fiddle, mandolin, bass, and guitar. Guest artists include Jerry Douglas on dobro as well as players who add instruments ranging from accordion and whistles to piano and Irish drum.

 

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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