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Thread: Zappanale #30 Review

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    Zappanale #30 Review

    Life and work got a bit in the way when my impressions from Zappanale #30 were still fresh, so this is literally a review. Hopefully it will serve as a bit of a memory jog for those who were there, and as an advertisement for next year's edition for everybody else. This was my second time attending. The first time, in 2018, I was lured to the Baltic Sea by acts that had no actual connection to Zappa or his music (Monika Roscher and the fabulous Lindsay Cooper tribute Half the Sky, especially), but I loved the whole crazy festival so much that it will be a fixture in my summer itinerary for the foreseeable future.

    Thursday

    Before the start of the festival proper on Friday, a nice aspect of the Zappanale is an evening of free concerts in the central park of Bad Doberan, the small town that transmutes into Zappatown for a week in July every summer.

    MagNiFZnt, a swedish duo that has cleverly arranged nuggets from the Zappa portfolio for two acoustic guitars, was a perfect choice for a starter. Good weather provided, the warm-up evening has a very picknicky atmosphere, with everybody greeting friends they only see once a year and drinking and snacking on the green. Well-played and well-known Zappa tunes were a nice accompaniment for those who were not mainly concerned with the music, but the two guys were certainly good enough to be a worthwhile listen if you focused on the stage and not on the chat.

    While I enjoyed the next band, NTS Trio from Prague, a lot more, they were perhaps too bold a choice for the relaxed atmosphere of the free Thursday concert. Additionally hampered by a late start due to technical difficulties, they switched from angular and intricate jazz/fusion pieces to more free electronic interludes. While the audience got in on the ride during the times when there was a recognizable groove, the improvised parts - which I found to be even better than the very good composed pieces - were perceived by many as a license to pick up their conversations again. All in all, I was glad to be introduced to this band and enjoy the CD I purchased a lot, but would have preferred to hear them later during the festival.

    Since this was the last evening with my lovely wife (she will brave death metal and the most abrasive avant-garde, but a severe case of brass allergy, with the saxophone ('Tröte') as enemy #1, made the festival program very unappealing to her), we left the warm-up early for an excellent dinner and so missed the last two bands.

    Friday

    A splendidly sunny afternoon got kicked off on the main stage by the Zappanale house band Jazzprojekt Hundehagen, a five piece band led by guitarist Michael Käckenmeister (no, not a pseudonym).They steamed through a very enjoyable set of 70s jazzrock and their own compositions, all played with verve and good band interplay instead of overlong soloing. Not a single Zappa tune, which I did not mind and the rest of the audience also took in its stride.

    In addition to the main stage, the festival has the smaller mystery stage, where more intimate or demanding or just plain weird bands will usually play. Two nice things about this: there are never parallel gigs, so you need not miss out anything, and the soundcheck usually happens during the concert on the other stage, so there are no long waiting times.

    This year's opening act on the Mystery stage was the duo Zement from Würzburg, touted in the program as Neo-Krautrock. While I can see where that label came from, I'm not sure how appropiate or fair it really is. They did not feel at all like a retro act to me, but a rather fresh approach to instrumental rock. Layered patterns from the guitar/keyboard player are propelled along by the drummer, who possibly is the strongest argument for the Krautrock label: this is a guy who obviously loves and, more importantly, understands what Jaki Liebezeit did. At first glance, just a very reliable no-frills rhythmic backbone, but behind that front, a lot of subtle shifts in patterns and emphasis make things very interesting if you care to listen.

    The very talented Treacherous Cretins from England were this years first act that played Zappa covers exclusively. They won the crowd's hearts early on with the announcement that they had been in the Zappanale audience for a couple of years, and now being up on the main stage was a dream come true. They had certainly earned that spot, with an excellent rhythm section - I found especially notable how well a crisp funky drum sound goes with a lot of Zappa tunes - and a great guitar player who was hopefully not as young as he looked. The song arrangements made good use of the interspersed trombone playing of the lead singer, often managing to fool you into hearing a bigger band than the one actually playing in front of you. Good stuff, and they would undoubtedly have been an absolute highlight of the festival in a leaner year.

    Ali N. Askin was Zappa's assistant for the Yellow Shark project, especially involved in arranging and transcribing the music for orchestral ensembles. That much I knew. He also composes a lot for film and TV, and, more relevant to his Zappanale gig, is the mean keyboard player and leader of a sextet that dips its feet in jazz, electronica and modern chamber music, but is mostly unclassifiable. And breathtakingly good: very intricate composed parts mutated gently into improvised passages, all colored by the unusal horn section of trumpet and clarinet. Great music that would need and deserve repeated listenings to properly appreciate, but me and a lot of other instant fans were disappointed to hear that there was nothing available from this band to take home and love. Nothing yet, I'm hoping.

    This years lineup included two bands, or ensembles, rather, from outside of the common rock/jazz hunting grounds, more at home in modern classical music. Percussion Under Construction, founded by members of the percussion of the Saarländische Staatstheater (the state theater of the Saarland province), was the first of these, and managed to captivate the audience with a sly mixture of Zappa pieces (the Black Page was a must, of course) and choices from their more usual repertoire. Presenting occasionally rather cerebral music at an open air festival that is at least approximately geared towards rock music was a gamble, but it definitely paid off for me, and large parts of the crowd seemed to agree. Some interesting visual gimmicks certainly helped with that - although the music itself had stage centre throughout, these guys (and girl) proudly displayed their theatric skills, too. Still, at least one thing underscored the enthusiasm or at least tolerance for unusual music of the Zappanale audience: I'm not sure how many festival crowds you could subject to a full rendition of Varese's Ionisations and have them like it very much indeed.

    With a three-day festival, there is a lot of music to listen to, and that's not even counting the warm up on Thursday. To avoid just being overwhelmed by too much music, I sometimes duck out early from sets that I'm not thoroughly enjoying, and the bar is set a lot higher for the last band on a given day, which has to compete with the lure of bed. Long Distance Calling played guitar-driven prog rock, and they played it very well. My closest comparison regarding their sound would be instrumental pieces by Porcupine Tree's, and I would have listened to a lot more than just two songs if it had been earlier in the day. A reluctant pass, but I was knackered and did not want to start the weekend with too heavy a sleep debt.

    To be continued soonish ...

  2. #2
    The eons are closing
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    ^^Thanks for the above. Awesome.
    No one plans to take the path that brings you lower

  3. #3
    Thanks for the review,
    I was also at the 2018 Zappanale, it was my first also, such a great festival!
    Too bad I don't live nearby...

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    Member MaikH's Avatar
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    Thanks for the kind words! I'll try to write up Saturday and Sunday in less than another two months ...

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    Turns out it took another two weeks for Saturday:

    After breakfast, we made a small cycling trip to Bad Doberan and the event space that is turned into a small Zappa museum for the length of the festival. Zement were playing another set as a matinee, and my guess was that Petra might like them just as much as I did. Turned out I was right, so after another hour of great music by the Zement duo, we went back with two new CDs in our bags, her to the beach and me to the festival grounds.

    Fried Dähn, who was the Ensemble Modern cellist during the Yellow Shark project and got seriously infected with the Zappa virus, has been a mainstay of the Zappanale program in recent years, always coming up with interesting projects in the borderlands of jazz, rock and modern chamber music. For this year, the 30th jubilee of the festival, he had assembled a cast of 30 musicians - the 30 for 30 project - to perform Terry Riley's 'In C', which is probably better described as an improvisational guideline than as a composition. After a short introduction by the charming Mr Dähn, who explained that two ensemble members were unexpectedly lost to travelling hiccups and shanghaied two audience members to complete the roster (they were only sitting in though, and not given instruments), things got underway.

    The stage was still mostly empty at this point, with just half a dozen players on the stage, who started trading the first quiet and cautious phrases. Standing close to the stage, I was one of the last to notice that more and more faint sounds came blowing in from behind and the sides. The rest of the band, basically everyone who could carry their instrument and did not need amplification, marched (or tiptoed, rather) towards the stage, answering the music on the stage with their own. This was a truly magical moment, even more so after I got over the initial surprise and could appreciate the changing landscape of sounds as the various small groups convened on the stage.

    Not all of the following concert did fulfill the promise of that wonderful start, but this might well be an impression very much my own: in my opinion, two central facets of improvised music are a) to provide a space for others and b) to recognize your own space and make good use of it. Neither of the two bass players seemed experienced in playing free music, so there was an element of stumbling throughout, and as they unfortunately were rather upfront in the mix, there was no place to hide. It is perfectly possible that this grated more on my ears than on others - I've played a bit of bass myself, so I'm prone to being overly critical. Nevertheless, this was a fascinating performance and experiment, and even in the places where it failed, it did so in interesting ways.


    Next on the menu, the AMM All-Stars turned out to be my only hard pass of this year. In all fairness, I should probably start by noting that Lumpy Gravy, containing too little music couched in far too much silliness, is one of the very few albums that ever left my collection. So this band from merry ol' England, whose main offering was a live rendition of Lumpy Gravy, had to fight an uphill battle before they even got started. Their frontman introduced their first piece 'this is what we call Free Improvisation', but unfortunately, parts of what they played sounded more like Dicking Around to me. And while the music was indeed improvised, the eccentricity seemed a tad rehearsed. The second piece was the shanty Handsome Cabin Boy, which got an outing due to having been played by the Mothers of Invention 50 years ago. Upon discovering that this was the kind of band where a shanty is inevitably delivered in a Pirate voice, I left the proceedings to enjoy the nice afternoon elsewhere.

    The HeadShakers, up on the main stage after my half-voluntary break, had their entry in the festival program written by Aymeric Leroy - a clear sign that things were on the up again. And they wasted no time in validating this recommendation. Entering the stage to a mechanical voice (the Central Scrutinizer, of course) disparaging every band member in heavily french-accented german, they then proceeded to bring the funk. Relying on a great selection of the jazzrock oriented Zappa pieces, mostly from the 70ies, they managed a perfect marriage of engaging showmanship and tight, groovy playing, even through the most difficult sections.

    Possibly my favorite discovery of the festival, they were unfortunately stopped short after just one hour by an ugly thunderstorm that had been stacking up on the horizon all the while. The concert organizers had tried to postpone this for as long as possible, which meant that the rain broke loose just as the audience was leaving the festival grounds. I got soaked on the few remaining meters to the car (having decided against bicycling was some small comfort at that point), and after checking that nobody floating by outside needed help or a dry refuge, huddled down with a book and the NTS Trio CD I had bought on Thursday. Lacking outdoor festival experience, I was totally clueless about the chances of things picking up again at some point, and more than mildly worried about missing the Ed Palermo Big Band.

    After more than one hour, the festival grounds were opened again, and at around 22h, The Loomings got things going again. They were probably the ones hit hardest by the weather (spoiler alert: The HeadShakers played the second half of their set early on Sunday), as their songs are absolutely carried by the intricate vocals of the two excellent singers, and doing those was hard with a lot of the stage monitors still frazzled. I had listened to a couple of live tracks on Youtube before the festival and therefore could understand their initial frustration. However, they soon overcame the worst problems and made the best out of the shitty hand the weather gods had dealt them. It probably helped that a good-sized crowd had turned in spite of the rain that continued to drizzle, and I felt that everyone really wanted to turn this gig around. Successfully, but I would really like to see and hear them again under better circumstances.


    And then, the Ed Palermo Big Band entered the Main Stage. That took a while, because the whole gang had made the trip to Bad Doberan. I was immensely looking forward to this - ever since discovering their 2nd album via Cuneiform, I'm a fan to the extent that I am listening to Palermo a good deal more than to Zappa, and had seriously considered a trip to New York to see them live once. And it was certainly not disappointed: the sound was on the dot right from the start, so the wonderful arrangements could be heard loud and clear, everybody was in a good mood that the storm had only delayed the gig, and at around midnight, it even stopped raining. Having Napoleon Murphy Brock on the team pushed the fun up yet another notch - his exuberance on stage certainly belies his age, but it does not quite hide his musical excellence and professionalism. Certainly not someone content with riding the nostalgia train. All in all, a joyful event that would have justified going to the festival all by itself.

    I would not have minded calling it a night after this great, great concert - it was almost 2am due to the delays by now - but I did want to give Det Skandaløse Orkester a fighting chance and at least listen to the first two or three songs. Nevertheless, my tired body did its best to curb my enthusiasm on the way towards the small Mystery Stage: the description in the program sounded suspiciously like a zany party band, and I had already had my daily recommended dose of zanyness from the AMM All-Stars. Unfortunately, those bastards were just too much fun to pass on. A nine-piece with a horn section and percussionist, their stuff is composed by the keyboarder (readily identified as the leader of the band by his cardboard crown) and meanders somewhere between Ska, early Zappa/Mothers, Mr Bungle and good ol' rock'n'roll. While the music was great, it was really the spectacle that made them special: these guys (and gal) hit the sweet spot between Looney Tunes and expressionist B&W movies, in a way that is hard to describe but quite unforgettable an experience. In the end, I stayed for the whole concert, the first and second encore, and only finally made my way to the hotel when they started to repeat parts of their set for lack of a third encore to play. Other witnesses will have to account for how long the party lasted afterwards.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by MaikH View Post
    And then, the Ed Palermo Big Band entered the Main Stage. That took a while, because the whole gang had made the trip to Bad Doberan. I was immensely looking forward to this - ever since discovering their 2nd album via Cuneiform, I'm a fan to the extent that I am listening to Palermo a good deal more than to Zappa, and had seriously considered a trip to New York to see them live once. And it was certainly not disappointed: the sound was on the dot right from the start, so the wonderful arrangements could be heard loud and clear, everybody was in a good mood that the storm had only delayed the gig, and at around midnight, it even stopped raining. Having Napoleon Murphy Brock on the team pushed the fun up yet another notch - his exuberance on stage certainly belies his age, but it does not quite hide his musical excellence and professionalism. Certainly not someone content with riding the nostalgia train. All in all, a joyful event that would have justified going to the festival all by itself.
    I'm glad you saw them. They really are amazing and Ed's arrangements are totally fantastic, imo, but due to the large size, they travel very infrequently. I've been lucky enough to see them twice....
    Steve F.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve F. View Post
    I'm glad you saw them. They really are amazing and Ed's arrangements are totally fantastic, imo, but due to the large size, they travel very infrequently. I've been lucky enough to see them twice....
    Yeah, I did absolutely not envy whoever had to care about the logistics of getting all of them plus their instruments to Europe. And let me thank you for a favorite of the many discoveries I made via your label!

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    ... and the conclusion.

    The last day of the festival started an hour earlier, since The Headshakers had an extra slot for the second half of their set after the thunderstorm interruption on Saturday. I liked a lot what they had done so far, and judging from the crowd that surrounded the smaller Mystery Stage, I was not alone in that. The band (minus the vibes player, who apparently could not prolong his stay) was just as happy as the audience that they could pick up where they had left it a day before, and proceeded to give everyone a very good time. And this time the weather was great, proving that occasionally the universe is just. This is an absolutely great live act, and their 1st album is also very much recommended if you have any interest at all in the more funky side of jazz. 2nd album (with Fred Wesley!) is apparently very close to being finished, and I'm really looking forward to it.

    I expected the Ensemble Musikfabrik to be one a highlight of the festival, and from previous experience, I also expected them to be the most difficult act of the weekend. Only one of these expectations turned out to be correct ...
    Similarly to the Ensemble Modern, this are a group of extremely competent musicians dedicated to the more demanding and thorny music from the 20th and 21st century, so I was ready for something with about the same easy party vibe as the Yellow Shark, especially since their arrangements were done by Ali N. Askin. They opened up with pieces from the Orchestral Favorites album , which I thoroughly welcomed - this is great music, and I never heard any of it live. Furthermore, the pieces were excellently arranged for the large ensemble (more than two dozen players on stage), and apart from being breathtakingly good, the musicians really got into the groove and were clearly enjoying themselves a lot.

    After about half an hour of this already wonderful set, things turned up a notch when Napoleon Murphy Brock joined the proceedings again. And never left ... I had read in the program that he had a guest star spot, but somehow thought that he would sing a tune or two. What happened instead was a flood of completely amazing renditions of the best pieces from the One Size Fits All era. Whereas the genius of Ed Palermo is to translate Zappa's work into another musical language and make you feel that they always were intended for a Big Band, what was played that Sunday afternoon was at the same time 100% true to the original stuff and somehow clearer, richer, more colourful. More fun, even. I thank there were a lot of definite versions heard on that day, and the amazement of the audience was shared by the wonderful Mr Brock, who was definitely having a very good day indeed. And as if to demontrate how wrong I had been in expecting a cerebral, detached, and difficult concert, they ended the whole glorious thing with Lemme Take You To The Beach. Perfect.

    At least for me, following up on that act was a daunting task, but the second set from Percussion Under Construction turned out to be the perfect fit. This was a fare more intimate setting than their Friday show, both due to the smaller Mystery Stage and only four players instead of the full complement of eight. As they also left out the melodic percussion instruments, this was a good contrast to the lavish orchestral sounds of the Ensemble Musikfabrik. My highlight was a solo performance on tambourine, akin to a tight-rope act in its intensity and fragility. All in all, another very interesting set of somewhat exotic pieces - pure percussion is probably not often heard at open air festivals.

    Regarding Zappa lineage, Don Preston and Bunk Gardner aka the Grandmothers of Invention were probably the highlight of the program, but I have to admit that I found their set last year Zappanale somewhat underwhelming. I don't have a thing for nostalgia, and while I admire what these guys have achieved in their musical career and absolutely respect that they are still up for a jaunt to old Europe for their fans - I hope I'll be able to still listen to music when I'm at their age, let alone playing it onstage.

    That said, this year their set did benefit a lot from a great horn section courtesy of Ed Palermo's Big Band, and was thoroughly enjoyable even without caring about the legendary status . If they continue in this vein - adding hot younger players to their roster (younger meaning fiftyish, in this case) - then I would certainly not mind seeing them again at Zappanale #31.

    Another beautiful tradition is the Good Bye Session, where musicians drafted from all and sundry of the bands will indulge themselves and the audience in some directed improvisation. This year's MC was Ali N. Askin, and the player roster was mainly drawn from Ed Palermo's trusty team and Det Skandaløse Orkester, with Fried Dähn and (I think) members of the SЮR Band as reinforcements. This was interesting and occasionally great, even though I feel that free music needs some familiarity between the players to be as good as more structured play. The quality of the musicians and Mr. Askin's bubbling creativity ensured that it never devolved into the 12-to-the-bar pit where improvisations from lesser rock bands tend to end up in.

    The closing act was the SЮR Band from Ukrania, led by the Radzetskyi brothers on Bass and a crazy 8-stringed beast that looked like a guitar, but did not always behave like one. They played intricate and nevertheless rocking stuff with all kinds of wild influences thrown in - jazz, noise, folk, you name it. I loved their original stuff quite a lot, and usually also would have enjoyed their intermittent Zappa covers, but at the end of the festival, I definitely felt a bit of Zappa fatigue in addition to simply being quite knackered. The more acoustic, almost classical pieces they played was absolutely great, though, and I would love to hear them again with fresher ears.

    This concluded my second Zappanale, and for me, the festival organizers managed to really rise to the occasion of the 30th anniversary. There were some wonderful smaller bands to be discovered - for me, the highlights here were Zement, Ali N. Askin and Det Skandaløse Orkester - but what really made this year special were the spectacular celebrations of Zappa's music by The Headshakers, Ed Palermo and the Ensemble Musikfabrik. The hotel for next year's edition is already booked, and I'm looking forward to another magic weekend in Bad Doberan.

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