Thankfully, the members of Frank Zappa cover band Project/Object address these issues in an effective manner. P/O's Jan. 4 performance at the Variety Playhouse was a great example of how a tribute act should do it. Nobody tried to "be" Zappa, but instead let the music create the mood.
Zappa is considered one of the most significant yet elusive rock artists of all time. His music, satire and politics were virtually inseparable. And while some of the lyrical themes may be dated, the music will be studied, deconstructed and deemed essential for years to come. And while Zappa was never a major financial success, he has a loyal and seemingly perpetual fan base that continues to wave the flag for him.
To that end, Project/Object are obvious Zappa-philes. And given the complexity of his compositions, they have committed themselves to performing a near-perfect reproduction of the music. Finally, by inviting former members of Zappa's various bands to participate, the New Jersey-based group gains a substantial degree of authenticity.
Opening the show were two members from the '60s version of Zappa's Mothers of Invention, keyboardist Don Preston and sax/flute player Bunk Gardner. With backing from P/O bassist Rick Bardo and drummer Mumbo, the "Don and Bunk Show" established the evening's intent with some of Zappa's earliest works.
P/O kicked off its portion of the show with a meandering instrumental piece led by guitarist Andre Cholmondeley that recalled the Mothers' improvisations of later years. As former Zappa collaborators Ike Willis (guitar/vocals) and Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax/flute/vocals) took to the stage, the performance became as much a revival as a tribute. Willis was with Zappa longer than any other band member -- and by virtue of this fact, he is the unofficial leader of the group, handling a majority of the vocals and "conducting" duties.
The recent addition of Brock to the P/O lineup proved to be a real treat for the audience, as the band focused extensively on Zappa's '70s output, which many fans consider to be his most entertaining work. Brock was a delightful performer to watch as he sang, played and danced through magnificent versions of "Montana," "Inca Roads," "Florentine Pogen" and several other classic Mothers tunes from that era.
Zappa's music was notoriously difficult to play. With their rapid time changes, elaborate melodies and extensive solos, compositions like "Waka/Jawaka" and "Peaches En Regalia" would stump most musicians. Yet P/O has mastered even the most complex pieces, celebrating Zappa's body of work without being artificial or archaic. And like the ethereal voice on Lumpy Gravy suggests, they also deliver "a bit of nostalgia for the old folks."