(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — An Erie-born professional drummer and archivist for the Frank Zappa Family Estate recently worked to assemble a collection of Frank Zappa concerts that were performed in Erie and Edinboro.
The “limited edition” collection features a 1974 concert from Gannon University and another from that same year at Edinboro College. A third concert from 1976 at the Erie County Fieldhouse also is included.
The collection was gathered by Erie-born musician Joe Travers who serves as the Zappa Family Trust “Vaultmeister.” Travers also is a professional drummer who has played with Duran Duran, Lisa Loeb, Billy Idol, several groups and iterations of Zappa family projects, and other artists.
Two important pieces of his Erie childhood led Travers to his current profession: he was raised by a family of musicians, and he was introduced to Frank Zappa.
Travers vividly remembers the first time he heard Frank Zappa. It was 1979 in Erie.
“One day in 1979, I was hanging out with a friend who had an older brother who used to listen to rock and roll — one day, on a Saturday afternoon, he was listening to a college radio station… and they played the song called ‘City of Tiny Lights’ from Frank Zappa’s record ‘Sheik Yerbouti’ which had just been released, and I stopped in my tracks,” Travers said. “I had never heard anything like that. I went over to the stereo and I was just listening to it and I heard the DJ say that was from the new album by Frank Zappa. I had never heard of Frank Zappa… I went home and I said, ‘Who’s Frank Zappa?’ and my uncle said, ‘Oh, that’s the guy who likes to yell at his audience.'”
“I was first listening to that at 10 years old and my brain exploded into many bits and pieces, and I haven’t been the same since. That was the one that did it. What an album… The humor and the dirty words — it’s larger than life when you’re that age.”
Travers grew up in a musical family in Erie. He played drums, his father played drums, his cousins were drummers, his grandfather was a drummer, his mother was a singer — as he discusses the musical lineage in his family, it seems like every limb on the family tree possessed some prowess for music. That musical talent took Travers to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. In Boston, Travers started working for Tower Records.
It was a natural decision to move to Los Angeles, Travers said. After college, he wanted to work as a professional drummer and Tower Records allowed him to transfer from its Boston location to its L.A. location.
“I was meeting new people, and networking, and playing, and it was a process, but I’m meeting people along the way, and it was important because when I got to L.A. I already had some contacts. One of them being Mike Keneally who was in a band with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa in the band Z. And they needed a drummer, six months after I moved to town,” Travers said. “I was 23 years old, living in Los Angeles, and I was getting paid to be a professional drummer, and that’s how it started.”
And that’s essentially where his worlds collide. He meets Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa (Frank Zappa’s children, and musicians in their own right) and subsequently is hired as the drummer for their band, Z. Travers then was connected to the Zappa family.
Frank Zappa died in December 1993. When he died, he left an extensive collection of personal recordings. According to Travers, Zappa essentially aimed to record and keep nearly every concert he played. Those recordings were kept in a “vault.” After Frank Zappa’s death, the vault’s staff took Travers on a tour of the vault and the Erie-born drummer’s knowledge of the collection surprised them.
“They told Gail Zappa (Frank Zappa’s wife), ‘Dweezil and Ahmet’s drummer knows more about the contents of the vault than any of us or you combined,’ and then Gail said, ‘Great, well then he’s the new Vaultmeister.’ And that’s how it started,” Travers said.
Travers has spent the last few decades working as a professional drummer and handling Vaultmeister duties when he wasn’t on tour. He also visited family and friends in Erie twice per year.
“Erie has been very good to me over the years when I come home. The people that I know that are in bands, and also venues when I go out. When I go out, they’re always very kind. I got a lifetime achievement award, believe it or not, from Erie. From the Rock Erie Music Awards, back when that was a thing,” Travers said. “Erie is great. I’m actually very happy to be in a position to shine a little bit of a spotlight on this town that was so good to me growing up.”
Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. The whole world came to a halt. Worldwide, many people had time on their hands as they waited for life to get back to normal — their social lives were on pause, and in many cases so were their professional lives.
While some people watched every episode of every show available on every streaming service, or took up baking, or got really, really good at making Rube Goldberg machines, for example, Travers finally had time to tackle a project he’d been eyeing for decades. In the vault were recordings of concerts from his hometown.
“I knew about them the whole time, it’s just that I had never really prioritized documenting them until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and I found myself with a lot more extra time than normal. I just began handpicking and grabbing things that I hadn’t gotten to yet, and the Erie tapes were one of the many things that I spent time on.”
A six-CD collection entitled “Zappa/Erie” was born.
According to a Rolling Stone magazine article “Frank Zappa’s Astounding Mid-’70s Run of Rust Belt Gigs Collected for New ‘Erie’ Box Set,” published online on April 8, the collection includes tracks recorded in South Bend, Indiana, Toledo, Ohio, and Montreal, Canada; however, a bulk of the tracks are from Erie and Edinboro concerts.
“It’s interesting to hear the way that he handled the audience who was actually very unruly during that show at Gannon, unfortunately. He had to stop the show like three or four times to get these people to chill out — ya know, fist fighting in the front row… a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make me super proud about the Erie audience in 1974, but it goes down in history,” Travers said. “To combine those shows together in one release would be something that would be really fun. With me being a part of the Zappa Trust for so long, and with me being from Erie and it being my hometown…”
The Zappa Family Trust website says the collection features three separate band line-ups that have been “newly mixed” from the original 4-track tapes.
Travers had Erie writer and local historian Dan “Chip” Schell write the liner notes for the collection.
“He wrote a book about the history of the Erie County Fieldhouse,” Travers said. “It was great to have a local Erie writer be featured in this worldwide release. I’m happy to have been able to get Chip involved.”
The limited edition six-CD box set is on sale for pre-order now and begins shipping on June 3.
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A post on the Edinboro University Facebook page saw residents reminiscing about attending the show.