|Total Time: 2 hours, 11 min, 19 sec|
This is the second of three live albums to come from the 1988 tour, which would prove to be Zappa's last. This one focuses on some concert favorites from throughout Frank's career and an unusual assortment of cover songs. Again, most of the songs feature lyrics, but this time FZ drops most of the political agenda. This one still makes fun of Jimmy Swaggart though. Musically, this album shows off the band a little better - many fans (myself included) feel this was the best touring group Zappa ever put together. Featuring two backing guitarists/vocalists, a keyboardist, a drummer and a percussionist, a bassist and a five man horn section that played everything from sax to flugel horn, and having gone through months of extensive rehearsals, this band was able to play almost anything Zappa wanted to play and make it sound fantastic. Unfortunately, the band had a lot more talent than common sense, and they started feuding amongst themselves. Mid-way through the tour, Zappa (whose health was starting to decline) decided that he'd had enough and pulled the plug, prematurely ending his final tour. The band performed in Europe and in the northeastern US, but never made it to the southern, midwestern or western states. Thus, for many fans this was "the best band you never heard".
The album starts off with three songs from Rotterdam, and includes a couple more later on. You can tell which ones these are by the constant Johnny Cash jokes. Frank explains that he had run into Cash in the hotel, and Johnny agreed to come out and make a guest appearance at the concert. But at the last minute he had to cancel, because "his wife was sick". The band had already learned how to play a reggae version of Ring of Fire, so they went ahead and performed it anyway, but with lyrics that weren't quite as kind as they would have been if Cash had been there. Cosmik Debris continues the "ring" references, and Who Needs the Peace Corps? also makes reference to Cash. At the end of "Corps", we finally get an answer to why the singer doesn't care that he got the crabs - it's because he left his heart in San Francisco - another odd choice of a cover song. The cover of Ravel's Bolero is gorgeous - given a slight reggae beat and performed by a rock band with a large horn section, it works better than you might imagine. When the continually building music comes crashing down at the end, the crowd goes wild. This version of Zoot Allures is good - many fans complain that they don't like Zappa's guitar tone on the '88 albums, that it's too thin and brittle, but I really like it. It sounds crystalline and yet somehow slinky. This version of Mr. Green Green Genes is also pretty good, and then disc one ends with a well played group of songs from One Size Fits All. I'm not too wild about the way they slow one section of Inca Roads down until it drags, but that's a minor complaint.
Disc two begins with a couple more unexpected covers - robotic, twisted versions of those classic rock mainstays, Hendrix's Purple Haze and Cream's Sunshine of Your Love. Twisted as they are, I think I like these versions better than the originals - Ike's improvised lyrics are great. Other odd covers on this disc include When Irish Eyes are Smiling (which, for reasons unknown, includes a bar of Louie, Louie), the theme from the Godfather, and the theme from Bonanza. The Brother A. West track fools a lot of listeners. It features a right-wing nut who was "invited" to come on stage and "provide balance". He goes on and on about how the heathens in the audience are going to go to hell for worshipping Zappa, and how they should be supporting Regan's "democratic freedom fighters" instead of spending their money on Frank. The crowd, needless to say, don't take kindly to this and boo the guy heartily. What most people don't know is that A. West was a friend of Zappa's - he did the artwork for The Real Frank Zappa Book (which is a great read, if you can find it) and graphics for the Broadway the Hard Way album. The whole thing was a put-on. It isn't included on the album, but later Frank explained this to the crowd so that no one would go looking for Mr. West.
The second half of disc two is dominated by yet another version (hopefully the last) of The Torture Never Stops. I like this version better than most, but could still live without it. It's over sixteen minutes long, but it helps that it's broken into two sections, with a couple other songs in between. After "Torture" and a couple other songs (which continue the mocking of Jimmy Swaggart), the album ends with a reggae cover of Stairway to Heaven. Other than changing the beat, the song remains fairly faithful to the original until near the end. Then, just as everyone is expecting Zappa to launch into a guitar solo to blow Jimmy Page's away, he instead steps aside and lets the horn section play the Page solo note-for-note. Hilarious, and a great ending for the album.
When I first got it, Best Band quickly became one of my favorite Zappa albums. It still seems to get recommended the most of the three '88 band albums to new listeners. For me though, Make a Jazz Noise Here has taken over as my favorite, with it being a toss up after that between Broadway and Best Band.
In case you're wondering about the album cover pictured here, that's how it looked when I bought it. Apparently the album was originally issued with a picture of the band on stage as the cover, but no one had gotten permission from the photographer to use that picture. So they just replaced it with a black box, making this the best band you never saw, too. On later reissues, the "blank" cover was replaced by Cal Shenkle artwork created for the Japanese edition. And according to Wikipedia, as of this writing they've switched back to the plain black cover. So if you're a hard-core collector, you need to track down at least three versions of this album just for the covers alone.