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Mike Keneally: when Zappa did Zeppelin

“There was always the chance that new material would be added during a tour”

Mike Keneally: has guitar, has traveled — including with Frank Zappa.
Mike Keneally: has guitar, has traveled — including with Frank Zappa.

Not even Frank Zappa realized that his March 25, 1988 concert in Uniondale, New York would be the final time he’d ever perform in the United States. “As a Long Island native, I was very excited to end that leg in Uniondale,” recalls local guitarist and former Zappa bandmember Mike Keneally. “There were tensions simmering in that band, but they didn’t completely catch fire until we got to Europe, so I think the mood at the end of the U.S. tour was still quite good.” The concert is featured on a new two-CD release, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show.

“I hear a lot of high spirits and good humor in that show,” continues Keneally. “I think we were all ready for a little break after two solid months of dates, but also happy that there were still so many shows ahead of us, in a completely different environment. But again, I really can’t speak to everyone’s attitudes about that. I was so young and green, and the whole thing felt like a miracle to me.” (Keneally was fronting local band Drop Control in 1987 when the invitation came to join Zappa’s touring band as a “stunt guitarist,” replacing Steve Vai.) 

The 1988 Zappa band rehearsed a 100-song repertoire that included Zappa’s complex genre-fluid songs, as well as several nearly unhinged covers included on The Last U.S. Show, such as The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and the first official release of “The Beatles Medley.” According to Keneally, “Those first two songs had already been well-rehearsed in advance, during the rehearsals in L.A. prior to the tour. There was always the chance that new material would be added during a tour though. In fact, ‘The Beatles Medley’ emerged during soundchecks on the road.”

The tour was Zappa's first - and last - where his home compositional tool, the Synclavier synthesizer, was a major onstage presence. "No tension surrounding the use of the Synclavier as far as I know," recalls Keneally, "although I’d imagine Bob Rice, the tech in charge of maintaining that delicate beast, might have a different perspective on that. The way Frank utilized it was mostly quite improvisational. Rather than using it to deliver the highly intricate compositions he was creating at home, he was mostly just physically playing the thing, triggering some of his endless array of samples he and his tech crew had created - bizarrely mutated vocal samples, including his nephew’s prodigious belches, or beautifully recorded samples of orchestral instruments."

"Sometimes during a lengthy improv section. he would go over and actually play kind of a 'solo,' which I would always love to hear since his live keyboard playing was so freaking rare. These wouldn’t be displays of chops at all, but very compositional interludes, just lovely. And then sometimes he’d press a button to trigger one of several longer textural pieces he’d created, not really 'songs' so much as 'events,' but we in the band wouldn’t attempt to play the piece exactly. We would respond to it and accompany it spontaneously, sometimes with Frank conducting us, very much as though the Synclav was another member of the band."

Eventually, the Synclavier would become Zappa's favored musical accompanist. "It really expanded the textures available to us, and I thought it was a wonderful addition. Also. our percussionist Ed Mann was able to trigger samples from the Synclavier using his own silicon mallet rig, so his already rich arsenal of sounds was enriched even further. I thought it was just great that it was there, and I don’t think anyone in the band objected to it at all. You’d have to ask them, of course. It was a major factor in what made that tour and that band so unique."

Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show features 29 unreleased performances, recorded with two Sony 3324 DASH PCM 24-track tape recorders synced together using a Lynx Time Code Module, thus providing 48-track recording capabilities. “I think a lot of Zappa fans have been surprised by the richness of the sound of that band on this album,” says Keneally, “thanks to the beautiful mix that Craig Parker Adams did for it. Frank released a lot of material from that tour, but I’ve seen a lot of people online say that they think this is the best sounding release from the tour yet, which is very gratifying.” 

Keneally has recorded over a dozen albums of original music and has shared the stage with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Robert Fripp, Negativland, Wayne Kramer, Solomon Burke, Sting, the Persuasions, and the Loud Family. He has also played keys in Joe Satriani’s band, and sometimes tours with Dethklok, based on the Cartoon Network TV show Metalocalypse. And 2018 saw the announcement that Keneally would take part in a tour with other former Zappa band members, to be accompanied by holographic projections of Zappa and related imagery created by Eyellusion. The outfit had previously crafted a Ronnie James Dio hologram.

After the last U.S. show and subsequent European dates, Frank Zappa disbanded the group and canceled the rest of the tour, reportedly forfeiting $400,000 in revenue. He would never mount another full tour before his death from prostate cancer in December 1993, at the age of 52. “There were personal issues in that band which ultimately forced Frank to make the choice to call a halt, which was very sad, as we were planning to do a further ten weeks of U.S. dates later in the year. Very disheartening. But also, Frank was not feeling well, and although he wouldn’t know this for another two years, the cancer was already growing inside him. I think his resistance was low and any instinct he might have had to conquer and repair the issues in the band was significantly less than it might have been when he was younger and healthier and full of piss and vinegar.”

Concludes Keneally, “I’m just grateful that he was able to work later on with the Ensemble Modern on the Yellow Shark project, likely a more joyful experience for him all around. It probably would have been utterly blissful, were it not for the cancer, which had advanced a great deal by that point. I tend to think of that Ensemble as Frank’s real last band, so I’m grateful that he went out on an up note.”

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Mike Keneally: has guitar, has traveled — including with Frank Zappa.
Mike Keneally: has guitar, has traveled — including with Frank Zappa.

Not even Frank Zappa realized that his March 25, 1988 concert in Uniondale, New York would be the final time he’d ever perform in the United States. “As a Long Island native, I was very excited to end that leg in Uniondale,” recalls local guitarist and former Zappa bandmember Mike Keneally. “There were tensions simmering in that band, but they didn’t completely catch fire until we got to Europe, so I think the mood at the end of the U.S. tour was still quite good.” The concert is featured on a new two-CD release, Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show.

“I hear a lot of high spirits and good humor in that show,” continues Keneally. “I think we were all ready for a little break after two solid months of dates, but also happy that there were still so many shows ahead of us, in a completely different environment. But again, I really can’t speak to everyone’s attitudes about that. I was so young and green, and the whole thing felt like a miracle to me.” (Keneally was fronting local band Drop Control in 1987 when the invitation came to join Zappa’s touring band as a “stunt guitarist,” replacing Steve Vai.) 

The 1988 Zappa band rehearsed a 100-song repertoire that included Zappa’s complex genre-fluid songs, as well as several nearly unhinged covers included on The Last U.S. Show, such as The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and the first official release of “The Beatles Medley.” According to Keneally, “Those first two songs had already been well-rehearsed in advance, during the rehearsals in L.A. prior to the tour. There was always the chance that new material would be added during a tour though. In fact, ‘The Beatles Medley’ emerged during soundchecks on the road.”

The tour was Zappa's first - and last - where his home compositional tool, the Synclavier synthesizer, was a major onstage presence. "No tension surrounding the use of the Synclavier as far as I know," recalls Keneally, "although I’d imagine Bob Rice, the tech in charge of maintaining that delicate beast, might have a different perspective on that. The way Frank utilized it was mostly quite improvisational. Rather than using it to deliver the highly intricate compositions he was creating at home, he was mostly just physically playing the thing, triggering some of his endless array of samples he and his tech crew had created - bizarrely mutated vocal samples, including his nephew’s prodigious belches, or beautifully recorded samples of orchestral instruments."

"Sometimes during a lengthy improv section. he would go over and actually play kind of a 'solo,' which I would always love to hear since his live keyboard playing was so freaking rare. These wouldn’t be displays of chops at all, but very compositional interludes, just lovely. And then sometimes he’d press a button to trigger one of several longer textural pieces he’d created, not really 'songs' so much as 'events,' but we in the band wouldn’t attempt to play the piece exactly. We would respond to it and accompany it spontaneously, sometimes with Frank conducting us, very much as though the Synclav was another member of the band."

Eventually, the Synclavier would become Zappa's favored musical accompanist. "It really expanded the textures available to us, and I thought it was a wonderful addition. Also. our percussionist Ed Mann was able to trigger samples from the Synclavier using his own silicon mallet rig, so his already rich arsenal of sounds was enriched even further. I thought it was just great that it was there, and I don’t think anyone in the band objected to it at all. You’d have to ask them, of course. It was a major factor in what made that tour and that band so unique."

Zappa ’88: The Last U.S. Show features 29 unreleased performances, recorded with two Sony 3324 DASH PCM 24-track tape recorders synced together using a Lynx Time Code Module, thus providing 48-track recording capabilities. “I think a lot of Zappa fans have been surprised by the richness of the sound of that band on this album,” says Keneally, “thanks to the beautiful mix that Craig Parker Adams did for it. Frank released a lot of material from that tour, but I’ve seen a lot of people online say that they think this is the best sounding release from the tour yet, which is very gratifying.” 

Keneally has recorded over a dozen albums of original music and has shared the stage with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Robert Fripp, Negativland, Wayne Kramer, Solomon Burke, Sting, the Persuasions, and the Loud Family. He has also played keys in Joe Satriani’s band, and sometimes tours with Dethklok, based on the Cartoon Network TV show Metalocalypse. And 2018 saw the announcement that Keneally would take part in a tour with other former Zappa band members, to be accompanied by holographic projections of Zappa and related imagery created by Eyellusion. The outfit had previously crafted a Ronnie James Dio hologram.

After the last U.S. show and subsequent European dates, Frank Zappa disbanded the group and canceled the rest of the tour, reportedly forfeiting $400,000 in revenue. He would never mount another full tour before his death from prostate cancer in December 1993, at the age of 52. “There were personal issues in that band which ultimately forced Frank to make the choice to call a halt, which was very sad, as we were planning to do a further ten weeks of U.S. dates later in the year. Very disheartening. But also, Frank was not feeling well, and although he wouldn’t know this for another two years, the cancer was already growing inside him. I think his resistance was low and any instinct he might have had to conquer and repair the issues in the band was significantly less than it might have been when he was younger and healthier and full of piss and vinegar.”

Concludes Keneally, “I’m just grateful that he was able to work later on with the Ensemble Modern on the Yellow Shark project, likely a more joyful experience for him all around. It probably would have been utterly blissful, were it not for the cancer, which had advanced a great deal by that point. I tend to think of that Ensemble as Frank’s real last band, so I’m grateful that he went out on an up note.”

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