Boy am I late with this pairing but hey, better late than…hey? Two box sets, two packs of CDs and a big apology for the delayed running of these reviews
We’re going live with Zappa over both of these box sets and those box sets are?
THE MOTHERS 1971
First up? A limited 8CD boxset called The Mothers 1971 which you’ll find for sale online for around £70 or so. This one has been compiled by the The Zappa Trust and includes the complete – as complete as it’s ever going to get, I suspect – Fillmore East tapes. Of particular interest because, as the included booklet says, it was the first time the Mothers were recorded on 16-track analogue tape, instead of the usual Show & Tell box with a record button that I’ve sometimes heard from the era. Ok, 1” 8 track then. But often worse.
Barry Keane was the recording engineer here, the same guy who mixed 200 Motels.
The heavily edited The Fillmore East 1971 live album (via Reprise/Bizarre) was originally spawned in 1971 from the best of these tapes.
What you have here though is the entire show source. The source of that 1971 album, a remix of the original multi-track tapes. Where the 16 trackers failed (And some of the original tape didn’t make it – time, folks. Time) then the original 2-track soundboard tapes acted as filler. So we still get everything, in content terms. Nothing is lost, on that score.
That’s four shows including the infamous John Lennon/Yoko Ono spot (I’ll let you read about that in the included booklet).
There’s also – in this box set – a new mix of the full concert from the Rainbow Theatre in London. Yes, the same stage Zappa was pushed from via a crazy, misguided boyfriend (it’s a story) and one of the main reasons why he hated the UK.
Zappa either had creative or physical grief when he visited the UK shores. It was a run of bad luck that forces any UK-based Zappa fan to drop his head deep into his hands. To be honest though, I’d hate the place too after that lot so I don’t blame him but it’s a shame that he never properly got to know our weird and wonderful land further. I think his music would have benefitted from it and we could have used more of his wit and wisdom.
Also in the box, is a combo concert via Harrisburg and Scranton, PA from 1971. So you get a selection of very nice extras here.
This box arrives in a very sturdy, compact slip case with faux, master-tape-esque sleeves for each CD
You also receive a 68-page booklet that – thank goodness – you can actually be read. In font terms, this one is actually manageable by human beings instead of the recently fashionable micro font I often find in CD sets and that can only be seen by Peregrine Falcons. In this booklet are interviews with Ian Underwood by Ahmet Zappa and liner notes from Eddie Kramer, Jim Pons (FZ’s then bass player) and Joe Travers.
Mastering? Generally, live albums are bad in sound terms (e.g. I remember a recently released Fleetwood Mac live album in which you can actually hear the music bounce off the back wall of the room). They’re not suppose to sound that good, though. That’s really not the idea. The point. They offer, in fact, a soundtrack to an experience, not a studio-based audiophile portrait. Live albums are messy in sonic terms. You stuff a bunch of musicians onto an elevated stage in a big boomy room with lot of noisy people and nowhere enough equipment to control this big space and you get a mess.’Twas ever thus. And that’s fine. As I say, a live album isn’t there for quality. It’s a diary entry.
So I’m happy for any sonic crumbs.
Mothers… offers sonic crumbs. Lots of them. That makes me happy. In general terms, the soundstage is full of space. There’s none of the sometimes claustrophobic feelings I sometimes hear from live albums.
I also hear everything. Everyone is ‘visible’. You feel that you can scan the stage with your ears and take in the full glory of the performance. Yes, there is some peaking around the upper mids and treble. Some clinical elements at loud volumes and around crescendos but really. That’s small fry compared to the good stuff on show here.
The second Zappa set I recently examined is called Zappa/Erie. Dragged from The Vault (a hallowed place for Zappa fans) we have six CDs containing three complete shows recorded on 4-track tape, based on performances in and around Erie, PA in the USA from 1974-1976.
It’s also great to hear that there are 71 tracks in this collection and only 10 minutes of this lot have ever been heard on a commercial release (actually the 1974 live album, Roxy & Elsewhere)
Produced by Ahmet Zappa and Joe Travers, the latter also contributes to the included booklet while Erie, Pa. journalist, Dan Schell, author of 9 Years Of Rock: The Story Of The Concerts At The Erie County Fieldhouse, adds behind-the-scenes goodies.
The shows themselves are presented in chronological order: Edinboro State College (a local university), on 8 May 8, 1974; Gannon Auditorium at the private, Catholic, Gannon University on 12 November 1974 and finally, Erie County Fieldhouse on 12 November 1976. Apart from the music, you also get to hear Zappa doing a spot of crowd control. It’s always nice to hear Zappa chatter. Oh and he was gifted a hand-made T-shirt during one of these shows. He blew his nose on it and gave it back. An insult or a gift of his own DNA for future scientific research? You decide.
You also receive bonus tracks from South Bend, Ind., Toledo, Ohio and Montreal, QC from around the same time.
Oddly enough, we can thank the pandemic for this box set because it wasn’t until that time that Travers listened to these shows and realized they were ripe for release, “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, I found myself, like so many others, with a lot of extra time on my hands,” said Travers in the included booklet. “Because of this, I threw myself even more deeply into archiving the fabulous vault of Mr Frank Zappa. During this time, it dawned on me that in all my years being the Vaultmeister for Zappa, I had never prioritized documenting the concerts FZ played in my hometown of Erie, Pa.”
The box set itself is presented in a 12” square book-type cover with three CDs inserted into the inside front and then back covers. The booklet sits in the middle and features a full tracklist, large-format images plus informative liners.
As for mastering? Erie is not on quite the same sonic scale as Mothers 1971. It’s a lot cosier, smaller in scale, you might say. The sound is relatively constricted, narrow with less dynamic reach. Even so, in general terms, the music is still open, relatively clear and transparent and full of energy. Bass is full and punchy, the mids may be a little overblown but they remain informative and, believe me, I’ve heard far worse. For a live album, you feel that the recording engineer was actually doing some work instead of sitting back with a beer, his feet on the desk, reading a magazine.
Combine the mastering with the complete nature of the content and the excellent presentation of the same and you have an essential release for Zappa fans.