Project Object with Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock & Don Preston, Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC- 3/23
A large picture of Frank Zappa hung over the stage, observing the proceedings like a postmodern Big Brother, or perhaps a Funky Emperor. All citizens had been summoned to the Ministry of Frank. Although Dear Leader departed our mortal realm a decade ago, his lessons are still being dissected, and implanted into young eardrums. As the progenitor of today's gurus, he would be proud to see his teachings, moreover the spirit of his teachings, continue to reach new pupils.
It's one thing to play in a cover band. It's another thing when the covers come off, and you find there's a real band hiding underneath. Project Object started off simply as a Frank Zappa cover band, although nothing's too simple about such a daunting concept. They attacked his repertoire with equal parts enthusiasm and reverence, indulging the depths of FZ's catalog with fearless abandon. Over the years, the returns started to multiply. Word spread of their incendiary performances, and slowly the truth began to trickle out that this was no ordinary cover band. These skilled musicians had a single-minded determination to bring the spirit, the spontaneity, and the sweat of Zappa's music back to a live audience. With devotion to spare, it's no surprise they began to attract the very people who had shared a stage with Zappa himself.
Ike Willis, the infamous voice of Joe from the Joe's Garage album, was the first to begin sitting in with the band. They had so much fun that others soon wanted to join the show. On their latest tour, they boasted for the first time 3 authentic Zappa alumni, representing over 20 years of experience with the master. Along with Ike Willis on vocals and guitar, Project Object welcomed Napoleon Murphy Brock on vocals and saxophone, and Don Preston on keyboards. The years they spent recording and touring with Zappa spanned almost his entire career.
Project Object has a rotating cast of characters, and for this tour there were three of them gallantly holding their own against the old guard. Andre Cholmondeley is Project Object's secret weapon, unleashing blistering guitar solos and scathing social commentary with natural aplomb. Dave Johnsen's bass and Glenn Leonard's drums compose the ever-schizophrenic rhythm section, flying through Zappa's signature time changes as if they were, well, normal.
The tour was officially in support of their first album of original material, a series of improvised live jams called The Dream of the Dog. But they knew what the crowd had come to see. The show opened with Don Preston appearing on stage by himself and settling down behind his arsenal of synths and keyboards. For about ten minutes he weaved an ethereal blend of soundscapes, easing the crowd into his personal bizarre vision of the universe. The three Objects, Cholmondeley, Johnsen and Leonard, then appeared on stage and began laying down support, while still floating through the air on Preston's cloud. The crowd cheered wildly as Ike Willis appeared next and launched into one of his trademark Zappa-esque guitar solos.
Finally, Napoleon Murphy Brock reached the stage, completing the lineup, and marking the start of the "official" part of the show. They opened with "Andy" from 1975's One Size Fits All album, as quintessential a Zappa song as they come, replete with everything from quirky time signatures to nonsensical lyrics. "Andy divine / Had a thong rind / It was sublime / But the wrong kind / Have I aligned / With a blown mind / Wasted my time / On a drawn blind?" They followed with "Pygmy Twylyte" from 1974's Roxy and Elsewhere live album. Napoleon Murphy Brock's staccato saxophone blasts brought this song to life just as they did on the original recording. The next track represented a rarity in the world of cover bands – a chance to cover some new material. The Zappa family recently released FZ: Oz which chronicles the band's 1/20/76 show in Sydney, Australia. Project Object took the opportunity to cover one of the previously unreleased tracks from this album.
But then it was back to basics. No review of Project Object would be complete without noting their cutting edge political satire. Like Zappa before them, they're not shy about letting the audience know where they stand. They eased into "Stick it Out" from 1979's Joe's Garage and dedicated it to Donald Rumsfeld, noting "We should ignore the UN to punish Saddam for ignoring the UN." Ike Willis then proclaimed, "I've got a better idea!" and if you don't know what lyrics follow that statement, well you're certainly not going to hear them from me. Wrapping things up with a succinct "Take that Mr. Rumsfeld!" they could only add one final pondering question: "How did our oil get under their sand?"
They stayed inside Joe's Garage for a while, sliding through "Keep it Greasy" and emerging "Outside Now" with a blistering guitar solo by Ike Willis. Afterwards, Andre addressed the audience: "I have one question. How can you drink Pabst from a can?" Ike reminded him how: "They're college students." They continued with "City of Tiny Lites" from 1979's Sheik Yerbouti, and then wrapped up the first set with "Village of the Sun" into "Echidna's Arf (of You)," both from the Roxy & Elsewhere album.
The second set began with Andre's rhetorical pondering, "Isn't all war shocking and awing?" With that, they opened into the title track from 1980's Easy Meat, followed by "San Ber'dino" from One Size Fits All. From that point on, the show focused exclusively on the early stages of Zappa's career, when he was at his most prolific. In the decade from 1966-1975, Zappa recorded and released 20 albums, nearly every one a masterpiece.
A gripping, intense keyboard solo by Don Preston led the charge through the seminal "Big Swifty," first seen on 1972's Waka/Jawaka. Ike Willis exploded into another monster guitar solo in "Oh No," a track from 1970's Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the only record that both Don Preston and Napoleon Murphy Brock performed on together. This song contains some of Zappa's most vicious lyrical disembowelings of the hippie culture he loved to torment. "And in your dreams you can see yourself as a prophet saving the world / The words from your lips / I just can't believe you are such a fool." This segued seamlessly into the classic "Trouble Every Day" from Zappa's very first album, 1966's Freak Out! The lyrics are surprisingly resonant even today. "Well I'm about to get sick / From watchin' my TV / Been checkin' out the news / Until my eyeballs fail to see / I mean to say that every day / Is just another rotten mess / And when it's gonna change, my friend / Is anybody's guess."
After Ike Willis soloed his way through a ferocious instrumental, the bulk of the band departed the stage, leaving only Don Preston and his keyboards for a slowed-down, melancholy version of "Mom and Dad," one of Zappa's most poignant songs. Detailing the murder of some "freaks" in the park, Preston soaked up all the emotions the song provoked in its original incarnation on 1968's We're Only in it for the Money, updating them with the impassioned urgency of the state of the world in 2003. "Someone said they made some noise / The cops have shot some girls & boys / You'll sit home and drink all night / They looked too weird, it served them right." The rest of the band returned and immediately tore into the title track to 1970's Chunga's Revenge, a thick, jamming instrumental that saw Andre Cholmondeley positively exploding on lead guitar. The bouncing bass line kept the melody as Andre soared high above the groove. They began the next tune by proclaiming "Someone told me this was a song about Bush," before easing into, you guessed it, "The Idiot Bastard Son" from We're Only in it for the Money.
Although Project Object prides itself on exploring and interpreting songs from all stages of Zappa's career, they know there are some songs the crowd is just dying to hear. On that note, they wrapped up the second set with "Montana" from 1973's Over-Nite Sensation, a song that spins the legendary tale of a young man gone west to raise a crop of dental floss. Returning for the encore, they burst into "Cosmik Debris" from 1974's Apostrophe. Taking the opportunity for some topical lyric changes, Ike Willis opined, "The price of shock & awe has just gone up, and Dick Cheney's oil wells are gonna go down." Finally they wrapped things up with "I'm the Slime," the classic ode to television's nefarious influence from Over-Nite Sensation. "Your mind is totally controlled / It has been stuffed into my mold / And you will do as you are told / Until the rights to you are sold."
The Ministry of Frank had now concluded its brainwashing for the day, by all accounts a complete success. But what exactly did the people learn? What knowledge had been transferred? That's a question each person might need to answer for themselves. To this writer, however, it seemed an affirmation of the beauty in having a confluence of influences, from loud guitar solos to cutting political humor, from emotional keyboards to silly lyrics. Like Frank Zappa himself, I guess you could say it ran the gamut.