Post-mortem releases are often difficult to pull off, as organizing someone else’s work can prove impossible, and doing so with a non cash-grabby formula can be even harder. But occasionally the legendary concert or occasional B-side proves worthwhile, giving glimpses into past realities and lost potential that the mass should be allowed to experience. Thanks to the overwhelming charisma and passionate performances from Frank Zappa, the work was made easy this time, and Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show should live on as a legendary live album—not from the content of the music itself, but as a window into the hilarious and unique shows Zappa put on.
Album opener, “We Are Doing Voter Registration Here,” quickly introduces you to the main format of the next two-and-a-half hours: Zappa calmly talking over and around jazzy, sometimes elevator music instrumentals. Giving informative advice about how to register at this show, Zappa brings a volunteer to explain the ease of registering to vote—a seemingly weird point of interest, but an important one to Zappa. Rather than choose a grandiose entrance, he slows things down, connects with his audience, and preaches the values that are key to the world, in his mind.
Yes, this performance consists of two discs and 31 tracks, but naturally, the tempo of the record puts the focus on the man himself, Frank Zappa, and his soothing but funny narration between the songs that somehow take up a majority of the performance. Sometimes, rather than a concert, it listens like a lengthy hangout, with a fun funk band to fill the blanks. With fun barbershop tunes like “Love Of My Life,” it becomes easy to joyfully sing along with Zappa, and soon invest yourself in the infectious concert environment he creates. Only Frank Zappa could get someone to sing “Happy Birthday” to an invisible “Chad,” over thirty years later.
While it may make for a lesser pure listening experience, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show is all about the genuine concert event, dwelling on your connection to the personalities on stage, rather than what is actually being played. Even slowing down the tempo for Zappa’s psychedelic guitar playing on tracks like “Inca Roads” lets you know it’s him playing, deepening that connection, without you seeing it for yourself.
The length of the project also contributes to a necessary obsession with Zappa’s on-stage actions and statements. The consistent five-plus minute tracks blend together in musical obscenity, granting additional highlights to the moments Zappa slows things down. The project’s most extended songs hold more than their share of weight, often filling gaps with mind-blowingly technical guitar playing, or funky saxophone patterns—the list goes on—but each breath of fresh air is presented alongside Zappa’s sense of humor and community, engraving his name in every memorable experience.
Disc two of this record does shift a bit of the focus from Zappa to the music, with less interludes, intermissions, original music, and direct wise-cracks from the performer. But through Zappafying others’ music—with tracks like “The Beatles Medley” parodying known rock classics—he still pierces through the façade of the music, showing off his own, satirical personality above all else. It’s unclear what his ideal reaction to this is, but it’s a cute way to poke fun at the untouchable group, while still admiring their musical accomplishments (even though “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” does become “Lucy and a Hooker with Herpes”).
If you can look past the outgoing personality, Zappa’s musical genius does obviously rear its head from time to time, with the crazy “One Man, One Vote” showing off signs of IDM maybe five years into the future. Though initially masquerading as a news show soundtrack, the song quickly devolves into rapid electronic mayhem that an early Autechre would be proud of. And though today it may not be impressive in the slightest, the foresight of Zappa’s musicianship is stunning considering it was 1988.
Worthy of a revisit and commercial release, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show is everything you want from a live record. It presents a clear and enjoyable concert environment, spearheaded by the late star, and his unmatchable, charismatic approach to performance. Full of artist parodies, fun sing-alongs, and endless Zappafication, Zappa’s last rodeo had to be one of his best—and it shows.