Pictures and words by Duane Clawson
Before my father passed away, he shared many stories of bands he had seen in his lifetime. The stories of Pink Floyd in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 70’s on their Animals tour or Uriah Heap opening for Jimi Hendrix. So hearing these stories I could only imagine what those concerts were like. Along with his stories, my father also introduced me to much of the music of the 60's and 70's. This is where I learned about a fellow named Frank Zappa. At first, I only heard the lyrics of Frank’s songs and found them to be quite humorous. As I dove deeper into this Frank Zappa music, I also discovered he was a gifted guitar player and continually surrounded himself with highly-talented musicians. So with all of the above mentioned knowledge, I have often thought how great it would have been to see a Zappa show. But unfortunately, Frank left us in 1993 and my opportunity was missed. So fast forward some 18 odd years later, I’m off to photograph a Frank Zappa tribute (I’ll use the term loosely) band. Two gentlemen that were fortunate enough to share a stage with Frank Zappa were Ike Willis and Ray White, who performed in many incarnations of Frank’s backing bands during the 70's and 80's. Andre Cholmondeley founded the band in 1990 or so, starting with Ike in 1996 and has since hired over a dozen various Zappa alumni to play with them. Ray handled the duties of rhythm guitar and backing vocals while Ike, also a talented guitar player, but is most remembered as 'the Joe', the narrative voice heard throughout the Joe’s Garage rock opera albums. Besides Ike and Ray, Cholmondeley has included the talents of Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Mike Keneally, Don Preston, Ed Mann, Arthur Barrow, Bunk Gardner, Robert Martin, Jimmy Carl Black, Al Malkin, Bruce Bickford, Roy Estrada, Bob and Thana Harris, as well as Candy Zappa, Gary Lucas, Ed Palermo, Jerry Cucurullo and many others.
The Ike Willis story is one that also contains a local connection as Ike was a student at Washington University in St. Louis when he was discovered by Mr. Zappa. This night at Old Rock House had many of Ike Willis’s family and friends on hand to share in the excitement of Ike’s return to St. Louis. One thing that was refreshing to see was the band chose to perform some of Frank’s more obscure titles. Project/Object opened the show with “Montana”, a song that introduces the audience to the genius of Frank Zappa through its musical composition. P/O didn't forget to cover the Mothers of Invention era as the next two songs were from said era “Everyday Trouble” and “Florentine Pogen”. The next song performed by P/O was one that had been tucked away in my memory for many years, “Flakes” was Frank Zappa’s insight to the dumbing down of America (yes, even in 1979) and contains the great lyric:
"I'm a moron 'n' this is my wife
she’s frosting a cake
with a paper knife.
All what we got here's
It's a little bit cheesey,
But it's nicely displayed."
Project/Object played the music of Zappa in two sets, all totaling darn near three hours of Frank Zappa music. P/O wound up their first set with “Cosmik Debris”, a song that requires biblical scholars to decode its musical content. The band recreated this masterpiece with precision. As they took a break, I was schooled by two serious fans of Zappa and his music. I thought I had some musical knowledge but these guys knew every musician that played on every Zappa album and what bands they were in, before and after Zappa. I was hoping the band would hurry up and get back on stage; I was feeling stupid.
The band rescued me by returning to the stage and picking up where they had left off with “Carolina Hard Core Ecstasy”, a song that gives Ike’s voice a workout with its lyrical content. In the middle of the second set, Ray White had his chance to shine with “In France”, a song from the 1984 album Them or Us. This song gives you the impression it was written for Mr. White’s vocal talents. Project/Object doesn’t tour with a 12-piece band, ala Zappa, but each musician does a great job of filling any musical hole that may have been left with these missing instruments. This was demonstrated when P/O covered the original, horn-laden “Hot-Plate Heaven at the Green Hotel”. In this second set, the band performed an epic piece of music that is aptly named “King Kong”. "King Kong” is a musical behemoth that infuses jazz pieces with psychedelic guitar and keyboard licks. The last four songs of the night allowed each member of the band to shine. “Mr. Green Genes” is a guitar opus which provides flashes of guitar brilliance from Ray, Ike, and my new favorite guitar player, Andre Cholmondeley. "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" and "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing” morphed into one and featured Ike as bandleader pointing out band mates when it was their time to shine. These songs produced more stellar guitar work and duels between keyboardist Eric Svalgärd, bass player Dave Johnsen, and Ryan Berg on drums. In researching my story I came across an article which broke down the musical content of, "Echidna's Arf (Of You)”. The article said most Zappa tribute bands would not touch this piece of music. I guess the writer of that article has never seen Project/Object.
I can honestly say that I have never been to a three-hour show that has gone by so fast. So as they say, all good things must end but one more wow before this show was over. Project/Object left the Old Rock Houe stage smoking with their rendition of “Zomby Woof” with Ike and Andre traded guitar riffs during this hard rocking Zappa classic. In many ways, this band is as diverse as Zappa was himself, with musicians that come and go and talented musicians in the band that are relatively unknown to the rest of the world. All of these things are an extension of Zappa. Luckily, Ike and Ray were there and shared in the genius of Zappa and continue to share that genius with the rest of us. Thank You. Pictures of the show are below:
Contributed by Duane Clawson