In my head, there’ve been Zappa borne riffs and words cycling throughout the last couple days in a convoluted gathering that occasionally reveals a discernible song part or two. It’s been chaos basically: the type of loud, obnoxious cerebral turmoil that leaves one staring at a 2 o’clock ceiling, waiting for silence or calm to envelope the commotion. In an effort to quiet the mess, I actually whipped out my copy of Joe’s Garage, just to play some of what I’d heard Saturday night and put the internal noise jam to rest.
It kind of worked. But, now that I’m writing this, the music has returned and remains disorganized.
Project/Object, a collective of Zappa alumni, played to a sold-out crowd at the Sellersville Theater this past Saturday. Of the originals, Project Object features guitarist/singer Ike Willis, percussionist Ed Mann and original Mother Of Invention, 77 year-old keyboardist Don Preston. Project/Object founder, guitarist/singer André Cholmondeley, played beside Willis and exuded more than a genius-level degree of Zappa’s music, like he’d listened to little else throughout his years.
When we got to the theater (my dad and brother and I), it was full to bursting with 70s artifacts: older men buried under long, greying hair, Zappa mustaches flexibly resting on a million and one variations of a single t-shirt, bespectacled devotees of the unique genre. A lot of these guys had probably seen Frank in the flesh and made my love of his music seem languid. My brother had made a comment after the show about feeling like a poseur around the breed of ultra-fan that Project/Object had brought to the theater. It was easy to agree.
The long line at the bar didn’t sell me on the beertender’s wares, so Dad and I decided to check out our seats. My brother, opting for beer, stayed behind.
We really didn’t have any idea as to what we would be seeing. Being that Dweezil Zappa has been, for the last couple years, on the road with his Zappa Plays Zappa tour, Project/Object almost seemed to inspire competition. The ticket price was definitely much less obnoxious than Dweezil’s, though I’m sure his more sophisticated and professional set-up warrants a high cost. We looked to be seeing the garage band version, a more paired down, fan-based interpretation of Frank. Apparently, Frank’s widow, Gail, has been notoriously opposed to Project/Object, having had a hand in canceling past shows. Luckily, she had no influence in Sellersville.
The opening band was a Philadelphia progressive/jam act dubbed, Igor’s Egg. Igor’s Egg is basically what happens when Duane Allman emulates Dave Matthews. To be fair, they were better than that, but their lean toward Dead-ish improv jamming had “festival circuit” appeal, the type of sound that owes itself to something that tries to be arty and resonates with Phish fans.
Crowd response was really good, though. Rhythmically huge, the bassist simply known as “Dirk” took the task of crowd engagement and prominently figured into Igor’s Egg’s brand of math jamming. They earned a purchase from my dad, (their CD The Ultimate Tuh), who found “Dirk” after their set and informed him that $10 had found its way into his band’s pocket. “Dirk” was appreciative.
More people began to arrive, just before the Project/Object began to assemble onstage. Commenting on the notable absence of women fans (maybe one woman to every fifteen men was in attendance… geekery truly is a man’s sport), a random conversation was sparked by a latecomer who started telling us that female Zappa fans are typically insane. Interestingly, his companion that night was an attractive female, who stayed pretty reserved throughout the performance. I wonder if she knew that she was batshit crazy?
Ike Willis, whose claim to fame is being “Joe” in Joe’s Garage, (my first and most meaningful exposure to Zappa’s music), is a mammoth of a man that worked his guitar with second-nature dexterity. His sound felt as large as he was, booming out of his guitar with metallic severity. Cholmondeley, as charismatic as Willis, had a more surgical approach, fine details seeming to be his forte. Mann, having carried the longest tenure as a Mother, was surrounded with an array of shiny, vibratory objects. A blazing smile plastered to his face, he would prance about the stage like it was still the good ol’ days. Don Preston was stationed stage right, sitting behind a large synthesizer set-up, seeming regal amongst them all.
For material, they went obscure. Aside from the notable inclusion of “Trouble Every Day,” “Florentine Pogen,” and “Andy,” they selected some great material out of Frank’s canon that wasn’t necessarily common, for lack of a better term.
Reprising his role as “Joe,” Willis pulled from the second and third volumes of Joe’s Garage (“Keep It Greasy,” “Outside Now,” and “Packard Goose), which I was in heaven listening to. The other personal highpoint was hearing the guys jam out to Sheik Yerbouti’s “City Of Tiny Lights,” which inspired an extended rock improv.
Don Preston brandished the pipes for a rendition of “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” from the Mothers’ first album, Freak Out! and also played an unfamiliar instrumental duet with Mann. Without even looking at each other, they were very in tune and completely trusting.
Most impressive amongst the band’s youth was the drummer, Eric Slick, who managed to sing a rendition of “Tryin’ To Grow A Chin” while beating the fuck out of his set. Out of anyone on stage that didn’t already have star power, Slick stole the show, throwing down colossal barrages of drum rolled amazement. He might’ve inspired the biggest reaction from the audience by the time the show was over.
“Peaches En Regalia” wound up the encore, and then it was night night.
Having heard recorded Zappa Plays Zappa material, Dweezil’s crew definitely brings out the magic, splendor and the scale of live Frank Zappa. It’s true to its source material and hangs on every note in a theatrical setting. Project/Object, though in tune to Zappa’s music, is freer with how they explore it. As arguments go, I don’t think it really matters who does it better, who’s making money off what, whose exploiting whom…blahblahblah. When it comes down to it, as André closed out the evening by mentioning, this is all Frank’s music. No one’s denying the genius.
Letters From A Tapehead