Graded on a Curve:
Frank Zappa,
New Releases in
Stores Now

2022 has shaped up to be quite the year for fans of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The Mothers 71 has been released as an 8-CD box set and a 3-LP vinyl edition. The Zappa/Erie set has been issued as an album-sized, 6-CD set, and Rainbow December 10, 1971 has been issued as a 3-LP vinyl set. Three of these releases are interconnected. The Mothers 71 CD box includes the entire Rainbow Theatre concert, which came roughly six months after the four Mothers 71 Fillmore shows.

The Mothers 71 reissues are beloved for many reasons and these new reissues are the best to ever be released. These performances were recorded using then cutting-edge live sound technology with the use of a 16-track machine. There was also a ¼-inch tape used with a 2-track machine for a live line mix. Given the size of the group and the superb concert-hall acoustics of the Fillmore East theatre, the original live analog tape recordings sound excellent more than 50 years after the fact.

Although some of the original analog 16-track recordings were lost or haven’t weathered 50-plus years of storage and tape preservation, the 2-track tapes are used as back-up here to fill in the gaps of chronicling so extensively these historic concerts. All the performances where the group was joined for encores by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, owned by the Lennon estate, make their complete debut on this new reissue. Some of those recordings were previously released by Zappa and others were released from Lennon and Ono on their Sometime in New York City album, originally released in 1972.

The critical historical aspects and advanced technological nature of these concert recordings is enhanced by the poignancy of these dates, which marked the conclusion of the short, roughly five-year run of the two Bill Graham Fillmore venues in New York and San Francisco. 1971 was a key year for Fillmore concerts, resulting in seminal live album recordings, including The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East, non-rock gems Aretha Live at Fillmore West, and Live at Fillmore West from King Curtis, as well as Spread Your Wings and Fly: Live at the Fillmore East from Laura Nyro, which was recorded in 1971 but not released until 2004.

The Mothers 71 release features one of many classic Mothers of Invention lineups. With Ian Underwood still in the fold and Don Preston returning after not being around for the previous studio albums from the Mothers, drummer Aynsley Dunbar joined, along with three members of the Turtles: Jim Pons on bass (who would actually join the Turtles later) and the two leaders of the Turtles, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (who would become the duo The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, better known as Flo & Eddie).

Volman and Kaylan added an extra dimension to the twisted acid jazz-rock, cabaret theatre-of-the-absurd ensemble playacting. Flo & Eddie simultaneously sharpened the satirical narrative of Zappa’s story songs and softened the sharp-elbowed blows against the hippie culture and old guard, reflected in the lyrics of the album’s centerpiece “Mud Shark,” on which Zappa mercilessly skewered many of the rock gods of the day.

The 8-CD box includes music from both shows from the 5th and both shows from the 6th of June. Additionally, non-Fillmore live performances are included from June 3rd, 1971, from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from the State Farm Show Arena, and from Scranton, Pennsylvania, from June 1 from Watres Armory. Rounding out the box is the December 10, 1971 Rainbow Theatre concert from London, newly mixed by Eddie Kramer.

That tumultuous period was marked by the group’s playing in Montreux, Switzerland, where on December 4th a fire destroyed the legendary Casino venue, immortalized in Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water,” destroying all of the Mothers onstage gear in the process. Concerts in France and Belgium were cancelled, with the next shows being two dates at the seminal London concert hall venue the Rainbow. For the Rainbow shows, the band had to use new gear and required additional rehearsals.

The first show on December 10th went well until the encores, when Zappa was attacked on-stage and fell into the orchestra pit, thus cancelling the show on the 11th and ending a grueling, bizarre, yet musically satisfying year for the Volman and Kaylan version of the band. The attack occurs during the final song of the album, oddly enough a cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a 1964 single from The Beatles. The box also includes four studio tracks. There is the single “Tears Began to Fall” and the B-side “Junier Mintz Boogie.” There is also a radio spot and outtakes from the radio spot production. The box also includes a 68-page booklet.

The 3-LP, 180-gram vinyl, trifold, abbreviated edition of the Mothers 71 box, Live At Fillmore East, June 1971 (50th Anniversary 3 LP) offers vintage analog mixes not included on the box set of the epic “Billy the Mountain” material and the Lennon/Ono encores and was cut by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering.

The Rainbow December 10, 1971 vinyl reissue is a 3-LP, trifold package, features a brand-new Eddie Kramer remix and was mastered by Bernie Grundman. The 180-gram vinyl was pressed at Optimal in Germany. The Rainbow show offers a very different song selection. There are songs that would show up on later albums such as Zoots Allure and Lather. There is also material here from Uncle Meat. Only three songs from the Fillmore vinyl set are also performed here. Both of these vinyl sets offer the best sound quality, vinyl pressings and exquisite packaging and will also delight vinyl collectors and audiophiles.

As for the Zappa/Erie box, the Erie, Pennsylvania shows are from much later tours between 1974 and 1976 and represent three different group lineups. Most importantly, only about 10 minutes of the nearly seven hours here were released on the Roxy and Elsewhere live album, which came out in 1974.  Along with the Erie shows, there are performances included from just outside of Erie and bonus tracks from Indiana, Ohio and Montreal. The Edinboro, Pennsylvania show included the twin-drum attack of Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey and jazz giant George Duke on keyboards, synthesizer and vocals, among others.

The 1976 show marked the tenth anniversary of the Mothers of Invention; a group with an ever-shifting lineup and fluid musical evolution. The powerful and expansive lineup for the Erie shows, celebrated the early albums Freak Out and We’re Only in It for the Money with often vastly reworked versions of songs from those records, that were still light years ahead of what just about anybody else in pop music was doing at the time.

The fall Erie show features only four members from the Edinboro show, with the welcome addition of Ruth Underwood. The concert has only come out in its entirety at this point and was no doubt delayed for years due to various circumstances that marred the show for Zappa. Zappa was suffering from the flu and the odd size of the Gannon Auditorium made it difficult for many in the back to see clearly when those in the front stood up, causing a rowdy show to grow more and more unruly as the night went on, infuriating the ill Zappa, who brought the show to a halt several times to try to cool out the crowd.

The box also includes later Erie performances from Zappa from 1976. This new lineup included jazz/new age artists Eddie Jobson and Patrick O’Hearn and future Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio, among others. Turmoil also marred that show, as a blizzard caused the band’s equipment to not be available and last-minute rental equipment was needed, which resulted in a delayed, abbreviated, and some would say sub-par show.

Zappa fans will want to have all these reissues, as they represent key live peaks for the group and are historically significant, although sometimes for the wrong reasons. Fans of The Beatles, John Lennon and Yoko Ono will also no doubt want to own the Fillmore sets.

The Mothers 71
A

Live At Fillmore East, June 1971
B+

Zappa/Erie
A-

Live at the Rainbow Theatre
B

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