Project Object featuring Ike Willis, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC- 7/16
Where in the world do you begin to cover Frank Zappa? He released over 80 albums in 25 years, covering every imaginable style from rock to doo-wop to classical to jazz. To start a Zappa cover band takes courage, chops, and quite a sense of humor. Fortunately, Project Object is up to the challenge.
Formed after Zappa's death a decade ago to continue bringing his music to the masses, Project Object reached a new level with the inclusion of Zappa lead vocalist Ike Willis, famous for his role as Joe in Joe's Garage. Although not an official member of Project Object, Willis, who sang with FZ from 1978-1992, tours with them whenever schedules permit. Other Zappa alumni, including Napoleon Murphy Brock, have also joined the band on tour, lending even more credibility to their amazing stage performances. With Willis in the band they lean slightly towards the later material, but their shows are known to span the full gamut of Zappa's career. No song is too hard, too rude, or too funny for them to cover.
Their Cat's Cradle show opened with "Packard Goose" from the Joe's Garage album, the first of many visits to the "Book of Joe" throughout the evening. "Easy Meat" was next, followed by the grand instrumental "Peaches en Regalia." The opening track on Zappa's seminal 1969 recording Hot Rats, this song was many fans' introduction to the late master's work. They kicked the intensity up a notch with the sprawling instrumental medley of "Echidna's Arf (of You)" #34;Don't You Ever Was That Thing?" from the live Roxy and Elsewhere album, featuring Willis conducting the band and punctuating the downbeats. Folks who thought they were in for an evening of simple Zappa covers learned at this point that no songs were off limits, no matter how complex or difficult. "Now that's the way to start a show don't you think?" asked Willis as the band and audience all stopped to catch their breath. The band was so tight and talented I couldn't help wondering what they would sound like playing original material. Although they all play in numerous other bands, their chemistry is undeniable, and I hope at some point they're able to put out some original material together. In between (and even during) songs, they carried on the Zappa tradition of telling embarrassing stories about each other and life on the road, trying their best to make each other laugh. One of the greatest testaments they make to Zappa's spirit is that they take the music, but not themselves, seriously.
They returned to the Book of Joe for the profane lyrics of "Stick it Out," and then launched into "Montana," that legendary tale of moving to the great north country to raise dental floss. Lead guitarist Andre Cholmondeley took a blistering guitar solo, as Willis proclaimed he was "riding, like Dick Cheney, into the dawn of Montana." The band punctuated the seriousness of the song by throwing bras at each other as they took their solos, a sign of endearment that would continue throughout the rest of the show, culminating in a bra free-for-all near the end. Not content to wait for audience members to throw their underwear at them, they simply brought their own stash to the show.
They continued with two pieces from Thing-Fish, Zappa's foray into musical theatre, "Brown Moses" and "The Evil Prince" (part of "The Torchum Never Stops.") The first set wound up with the two earliest Zappa pieces of the evening, the title track from his second album "Absolutely Free," and "Flower Punk" from his third album We're Only in it for the Money.
The band showcased their flexibility by opening the second set with a drums/percussion duet leading into the neo-classical sounds of "Strictly Genteel." They followed with "Black Napkins," one of Zappa's favorite songs from his catalog, and after a brief "Bobby Brown" tease, launched into "Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt" (alternately known as "Wet T-Shirt Night") from Joe's Garage. If you're going to be in a Zappa cover band, you have to be ready to offend some folks. No one in the crowd seemed upset though as Cholmondeley blazed a heavy metal guitar solo over Jordan Shapiro's Cuban-styled piano and Mumbo and Wes Paich's mighty percussion jam. The whole band then descended into blissful mayhem leading into a mighty bass solo by Rick Bartow. With political incorrectness in mind, following a jam of the intro to the epic "Big Swifty," they went into "Keep it Greasy," a song from Joe's Garage that, well, er, um, ok I'm not even going to get into what that song's about. This is a family website after all.
The band stayed inside Joe's Garage for the grandiose, sweeping guitar work of "Outside Now," a song posed by the lamenting Joe as he sits in prison for the crime of enjoying music. "I'll lay here on my back till dawn," he sings, "in a semi-catatonic state, and dream of guitar notes that would irritate an executive kind of guy." Ike Willis then erupted into what was arguably the best guitar solo of the entire night, and then wrapped it up with some horribly obscene lyrics about Martha Stewart. A perfect balance of chops and humor. Throughout the evening the band changed lyrics around, as Zappa was often known to do, to reflect current events. Their victims this evening included Dick Cheney, Martha Stewart, Wall Street, and Halliburton, Inc., working them into songs whenever possible. They also included a phone call from Willis to Bill Clinton (channeled into the room by Cholmondeley), who expressed delight in his successor's current woes. The band also apologized to Clinton for being so harsh on him several years ago, an apology he humbly accepted.
"Cruisin' for Burgers" was up next, followed by "Cheepnis," a song immortalizing Zappa's love for cheap horror movies and evil poodles. "Sy Borg" from Joe's Garage then spun the sweet love story of the passion between a man and a robot that looks like a magical pig covered with marital aides. The band then unleashed the mighty "King Kong," a majestic instrumental which featured drummer Wes Paich alternating between conducting the band and simply throwing bras at them. He then stopped the music to instruct each band member to play in a different time signature. One member played in 4/4, another in 7/4, and Cholmondeley was told to play in 1. The band then went around in circles quoting various 5-second snippets from rock classics old and new, including two separate Tenacious D quotes, before launching back into "King Kong."
The power-rock guitar choppings of "Apostrophe" led the band into two selections from the One Size Fits All album to close out the set. "Andy" and "Inca Roads" finished off the long and winding show and led into the encore "Jones Crusher" from the 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti. The 25 songs they played spanned virtually the entire career of Frank Zappa. A friend who was with me asked what I thought Zappa would think of the show. An impossible question to answer perhaps, but I thought he would have enjoyed it. They played his songs with love, mighty chops, and above all with a sense of humor and joy. Zappa viewed his career with a sense of "conceptual continuity," and Project Object are continuing down that path, sharing Zappa's music with all those fortunate enough to hear them.