‘Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show’: A Versatile, Career-Spanning Farewell

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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 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 album 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 saxophone, 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.

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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.

Listen to “Peaches en Regalia” from Zappa ’88

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”?

Related: When Zappa sat in with Pink Floyd

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.

Jeff Burger

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