So I finally laid hands on a copy of this album. When it was first released, I held off on ordering it thinking that I'd include it in my annual Xmas purchase of the latest Zappa posthumous releases. Except that when the time came around to do so, this album had already gone out of print. It took a few years, but it was worth the wait. Apparently with the passing of Gail Zappa and the kids taking over the family business, they've decided to drag the ZFT into the twenty-first century and make their releases available via Amazon for reasonable prices, without the exorbitant shipping fees. So not only was I able to buy this album and Venue #3 that way, but while I was shopping for them, Amazon made me aware that there were two more new official Zappa releases that I wasn't even aware of. So I bought those too and even got free shipping. Worked out great for me, great for Amazon and great for the ZFT.
But enough backstory - how's the album? Well, my first thought was "why do we need yet another release by the Roxy band, especially when there's already a recording of that band playing in Helsinki (You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol 2)? Turns out this new Road Tapes entry was recorded the previous year, and while there's some overlap in personnel (Frank, Ruth Underwood, George Duke), there's also a lot of differences. The 1973 line-up featured Ian Underwood on clarinet and synthesizer, Bruce Fowler on trombone, Tom Fowler on bass, Ralph Humphrey on drums and Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Given the presence of all these instrumentalists and the lack of front man extraordinaire Napoleon Murphy Brock, you might guess that this earlier incarnation is a lot jazzier and more focused on instrumentals. And you'd be right.
Another difference is the tempo - while YCDTOSA 2 sounded like a track meet, with Frank setting insanely high tempos, Road Tapes 2 is more leisurely, giving each member of the band more room to stretch out and solo.
Much of the set list is the same, but the arrangements are often very different. There are also a couple tunes unique to this set list, including Exercise #4. Before you get all excited about the thought of a long-lost, unreleased Zappa composition, I should mention that it's just a two minute ditty that sounds really familiar. I think most, if not all of it ended up getting recycled into other songs, but sadly my Zappa-Fu has deteriorated to the point where I can't name the songs off the top of my head. I'm sure some obsessive fan has documented it somewhere on the web.
The oddly named Your Teeth and Your Shoulders and Sometimes Your Foot... starts out as a George Duke keyboard solo that's supposed to be an intro to Dupree's Paradise, but after a few minutes it goes off the rails into a full band jam, and ends up as a lounge jazz version of Pojama People with Frank crooning the lyrics before it finally segues into Dupree.
All Skate starts off with Frank saying "Well I think what we're going to do right now...is make something up." It kicks off with an Ian Underwood synthesizer freak out that eventually morphs into a blusey improv with an FZ guitar solo.
You might be wondering how the sound quality is. It's not bad. Not great, but not bad. This 2-CD set actually compiles together recordings from three shows over two days (with the track listing on the back of the CD case indicating which parts came from which shows), so presumably vaultmeister Joe Travers was able to pick the best recordings and performances to put together what sounds like one complete concert.
The liner notes give some details of how the shows were originally recorded (tape speeds, number of tracks, etc) and how the tapes were restored from the vault. The notes also mention that it was one of the first shows that Kerry McNabb worked for Zappa, so it's one of his earliest attempts to make a "guerilla recording" of the band. I'm guessing this is a soundboard recording - during the sound check and introductions that begin disc one, Frank complains that he can't hear parts of Ruth's percussion set, presumably through the P.A. system. But we can hear them clearly on the recording, which is what makes me think this came straight from the soundboard. The sound is generally fairly clear, with all the instruments clearly audible and well mixed, but overall it's just a tad muddy sounding and often sounds right on the edge of distortion. But for an "official bootleg", this album is very listenable.
My final recommendation on this release would be that it's a near-necessity for hard core Zappa fans, especially if the Roxy era is one of your favorite parts of Frank's career. For casual fans who already have Roxy and Elsewhere and the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series, you probably don't need this one. It all depends on your answer to the question "do I really need yet another version of Penguin in Bondage or Montana or Village of the Sun?" As an obsessive collector type, my answer was obviously yes, but yours may vary.