Live: Return to Forever IV at Mizner Park Amphitheater, September 10

​Return to Forever IV
With Zappa Plays Zappa
Mizner Park Amphitheater, Boca Raton
September 10, 2011

Better Than: Watching Back to the Future on VHS or Bluray.

As Dweezil Zappa put it, it was an "arrogantly muggy" night in Boca Raton for the outdoor concert. As offensive as the weather may have been, though, the music was beyond pleasant, even when it was intentionally offensive -- as was the case during certain portions of the Zappa set, appropriately. Indeed, the lawn full of perspiring peeps -- an assortment of refined Boca folks, Zappa freaks, and wasted youngsters -- were treated to a night full of topnotch musicianship. And as for the sweat dripping from their pleased brows, that may have been a natural reaction to the mind-blowing talent of the sweaty players on stage: "If your body temperature goes up," said Stanley Clarke, "we are responsible."

Return to Forever's set was an exhibition of top-tier musicians digging in and delivering the goods. They took old fans and newbies alike along for a ride that was at times high and playful, hard and funky, or soft and soulful, using old classics and newer selections as vehicles for spirited renderings of brilliant compositions as well as masterful improvisation. At no time did they lose control of the ship, which most audience members would have trouble even finding the ignition to.

The way Clarke, Chick Corea, and Lenny White -- who first played together decades ago -- conversed with simultaneous ease and sophistication was something special to behold. It was clear that they are not only musical geniuses but great musical friends. And Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale, on violin and guitar, respectively, added beautifully to the well-established core. The band exuded confidence, talent, and great joy in sharing that with their appreciative, and appreciated, audience.

If there was an MVP of the evening, it would have to be Stanley Clarke. He absolutely tore his bass to shreds, lovingly, and also caressed it, evoking tearful melodic runs alongside slamming, thunderous-funk, monster rhythms. Clarke himself is a monster, towering head and shoulders above his bandmates. Along with White on drums, the rhythm section of the band could power a locomotive out of this atmosphere.

The spotlight moment of the whole evening may have been Clarke working the hell out of his upright bass during his solo in the Ponty composition "Renaissance" -- in which all the musicians played acoustic instruments for the only time in the night. Funny enough, the only error committed in the night was by the MVP himself when he tripped over one of his basses as he walked out to take a bow at the end of the show. A blemish that was easily forgotten by most, I'm sure.

Earlier in the night, Zappa Plays Zappa warmed up the sweltering crowd for the genius to come with some masterful playing of its own. Though the songs were composed by the band leader's late father, Frank Zappa, the group delivered them as only a quality group could. Dweezil Zappa lead the group humbly and impressed with his guitar skills. The band is tight, and its grooves are deep. Somehow, no matter what, a deep groove is never a nostalgic thing. The highlight of the set would have to have been "King Kong" for which they were joined by Corea, who exchanged wild, soaring solos with Zappa.

Critic's Notebook:

Random detail: Frank Zappa shirts were everywhere. Every time I turned around, I was met with a cockeyed, sarcastic smirk.

By the way: Make sure to see any of the musicians mentioned above anytime you have the chance.

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Travis Newbill