There are many good live recordings by Frank Zappa and his bands. Definitely it is hard to count every great gig played by successive groups in the span of more than quarter of the century. And it was always a question, which one is best to take first. Almost ultimate choice is Bongo Fury, recorded in Austin, Texas May 20 and 21, 1975 and released October 2, 1975. This is album, mainly covering recordings of two concerts, that can be seen as a turning point both in Frank Zappa’s and Captain Beefheart’s career.
The place of the concert was quite magic. Despite its ugliness and poor acoustics, its worth to notice, the adopted old military depot, named Armadillo World Headquarters, became main music and entertainment center in Austin during the seventies. In early years it became the center of hippie culture, because of inexpensive tickets, tolerating using of the marijuana and no police raids. These freedoms established an asylum for any kind of the audience, especially for the counterculture and progressive music, but in second half of decade jazz concerts and pop music events were also located here. Conforming didn’t save the Austin’s concert center. December 31, 1980 it has closed and torn down to make place for office building of One Texas Center.
Zappa was playing in Armadillo not for the first time, but in 1975 it happened to be the place for the breakthrough change in Zappa’s career. It was the last time Zappa played with Mothers in its early seventies line-up with Tom Fowler on bass and George Duke on keyboard instruments. Some of them he will play again after years – Bruce Fowler came back in Broadway the Hardway and Napoleon Murphy Brock in some albums in forthcoming years, including Thing Fish where he played the role of Evil Prince. In Austin concert and main part of Bongo Fury for the first time appeared as a member of Zappa's group Terry Bozzio – long time drummer and frontline personality on numerous Zappa’s records. In two studio songs on drums was still playing Chester Thompson – drummer of last Mothers line-up featured on Roxy and Elsewhere and One Size Fits All.
Bongo Fury was also last time Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart appeared together. Two great artists, personalities and friends, made outstanding performance. For Don Van Vliet it looked like trying to comeback into the mainstream of progressive music. Which itself in 1975 was on its way to change. Two songs credited as his works are in fact melodic recitations of his poems - Sam With the Showing Scalp Flat Top (ended with refrain Bongo Fury) and Man With the Woman Head. Despite this Captain Beefheart sings with great blues feeling. He is also playing saxophone and harmonica like old delta blues recordings in Smithsonian archives.
Even if most of pieces was composed by Zappa, Beefheart’s contribution is huge. His vocals in Debra Kadabra, one couplet in Carolina Hard-Core Extasy, phenomenal narrative singing and harmonica solo in Poofter’s Froth Wyoming Plans Ahead, and so on in every consecutive piece of this album. And there is a quite vocal personnel – singers are Frank Zappa, George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Denny Walley. But hearing the voice of Captain Beefheart in first part of Advance Romance, there can be no doubts about who is leading this spectacle. Great stage personality and outstanding artist!
Zappa is quite out of any trend he was before or after. His solo in Carolina Hard-Core Extasy gives foretaste of next ten years of jamming documented in numerous live recordings and two huge collections of guitar solos, beginning with Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar in 1981. The Bongo Fury album shows one more time Zappa as great leader who can stand down and give place for concurrent musicians. Two studio recordings and some overdubs were recorded one year before, January and February 1974 at The Record Plant in Los Angeles. No matter what part of his work you like best, rock, orchestral, social or political satire, comedy or electronic, Bongo Fury belongs to most important albums by Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and musicians of the Mothers group.