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Project/Object @ B.B. King

The first thing I should say, as a disclaimer, is that we should all be happy that the music of Frank Zappa is still being played today. In a world where a lot of young music fans are starting to compare the Jonas Brothers to the Beatles, presenting his music to new audiences is vitally important.

Until a few years ago, I have to (shamefully) confess that I was only a casual Frank Zappa fan. I owned Hot Rats, a greatest hits collection or two, and some random tracks via the internet, but that was the extent of my Zappa experience.

I was still in this frame of mind a year after college when I convinced some friends to make the 18 hour drive to Manchester, TN to experience the Bonnaroo music festival. There were a ton of bands I wanted to see (as there are every year), and one that caught my attention specifically was Zappa Plays Zappa, a Zappa cover band fronted by Frank’s son Dweezil.

And so it happened that one afternoon that weekend while my friends went to see BB King play what I was told was an amazing set on the main stage, I chose to visit one of the secondary stages for ZPZ’s set. It was during that hour and fifteen minutes that my true Zappa-fandom was born. I was exposed to Zappa’s music in a whole new way, and the fact that I was surrounded by fellow Zappa-worshipers all singing their hearts out made the experience both surreal and heavenly.

Since then I’ve become a complete Zappa-phile. My knowledge, ownership, and enjoyment of his catalog has grown exponentially, and it pains me more than any other deceased musician that I never got to see him perform live. Thankfully Zappa Plays Zappa does a fabulous job of presenting Frank’s music to new audiences. However, they aren’t the only prominent Frank Zappa cover band around today (hooray, he’s actually getting to the point of the article!).

Project/Object first started touring in 1998 and are basically considered to be the ‘other’ Zappa cover band, despite of the fact that they’ve been around longer than ZPZ, and, maybe more importantly, have a former member of Frank’s line-up consistently performing with them. Both P/O and ZPZ have been blessed by the presence of various Zappa alumni during their numerous tours such as Terry Bozzio, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ray White, and dozens of others, but P/O has had the advantage of having Ike Willis, the vocalist for a number of Zappa albums including the iconic Joe’s Garage, performing with them on every tour. I’d wanted to check out this Zappa troupe out for awhile now, but it was only this past week that I was finally able to catch one of their shows. Thus last Thursday I made the 5 block stroll (I love living in Manhattan) down to BB King Blues Club and Grill, something I found ironic considering the circumstances of my Bonnaroo Zappa baptism, to finally check P/O out.

Kind of angry I apparently missed Spock's Beard...

In all honesty the most I knew about BB King (the venue!) before the show was that they have a Beatles Brunch on Saturday afternoons with a looking-a-like band and a gospel brunch on Sundays. Other than that it was simply a venue I walked past whenever I go to the movies. I anticipated that it was going to be a classier place than a lot of other venues in NYC and probably a little more expensive given the area it’s located in (right outside of Times Square on West 42nd Street), so I tried to brace my wallet for the hit. Upon arriving and purchasing my ticket I moved into the main room, and I was asked if I want to be seated. I usually hate sitting for shows as moving around and physically rocking out is a big part of any concert for me, but I saw that sitting would put me drastically closer to the stage compared to standing at the bar, so I accepted the invitation and was escorted to a seat.

The club sits guests together as they come in, so I ended up at a table with two older gentlemen, two young men my own age, and a foreign couple (note: I found it pretty funny how many guys had dragged their hesitant girlfriends to the show. This was not a generational thing either, there were couples in their 20’s and couples in their 50’s who were having the same conversation about loving/reluctantly being there at every table). The seating was a little cramped and the forced proximity to others could have made things slightly awkward if I and my new friends weren’t social butterflies, but everyone was paying attention to the band anyway so it’s wasn’t all that terrible a situation to be in. Seated guests were also required to spend at least $10 per person on food and/or drink, but seeing as beers were $7 dollars each this was hardly an obstacle. The staff was quick and professional, but they were constantly trying to get everyone to spend more money on drinks during the performance, which became pretty aggravating by the end of the show. Still, if one’s not careful he or she can easily end up spending a shit ton of money on $7-10 dollar drinks and entrees that start at $15 dollars and max out at over $50 (note: a steak at BB King will cost you more than a steak at Ruth’s Chris).

But oh yeah, there was music too! The opener was a bluegrass band that one of the P/O members plays with while not Zappa-ing called Astrograss. Their set was entirely Zappa covers, which I have to salute the band for for being absurdly creative. The highlights of the entire night may have been the bluegrass covers of “Stick It Out“, a filthy song about having sex with robots, and “He’s So Gay“, which is pretty easy to figure out the concept of. Not only were the songs hilarious in both concept and execution, but you could tell some of the other members of the band could barely believe what they were playing. Astrograss isn’t the most talented bluegrass band I’ve ever seen but I have to give them an A+ for being ridiculous, ambitious, and having most of the audience on the floor laughing during their entire set.

After Astrograss, Project/Object made their way on stage. The non-Zappa-alumni came on stage first to very little fanfare, followed by Ike Willis to massive applause. I had seen recent pictures of Ike before the show, and it’s good that I had because otherwise I’d have probably mistaken him for the homeless guy outside my apartment. As a young douche bag I know I can’t really judge people on how well they age, but it’s really like seeing two different people compared to what he looked like back in the late 70’s/early 80’s (I couldn’t find a good picture of him back then, but check this out and then compare it to now). Also joining P/O on this tour is Ray White, who has aged equally well, to the point where he looks EXACTLY like John Witherspoon.

Left to Right: Ray White, Eric Svalgard, Ike Willis, and Jim Ruffi

I have to admit that my expectations had been set pretty high by Zappa Plays Zappa. ZPZ features phenomenal musicians who pull off flawless covers of Zappa’s music, and the band includes saxes and an auxiliary percussionist who add another layer of authenticity to each performance. I quickly became aware that P/O was going to be a different type of Zappa cover band experience. They’re a smaller group than ZPZ, featuring no horns or percussion outside of drums (at least currently, the composition of both groups changes semi-frequently, and sax was included on some songs in the second set), and to be perfectly frank their performances aren’t as clean as ZPZ’s. Part of this falls on the shoulders of Willis and White, who really aren’t the performers they used to be. In their prime they were both amazing vocalists offering stark contrast to Zappa’s emotionless, almost monotone spoken lyrics. On this night neither of them even tried to challenge their vocal ranges after the third song. Ray White in particular disappointed me with what seemed like a total lack of effort, which was especially surprising considering I had also seen him play with ZPZ at Bonnaroo back during the performance mentioned at the beginning of this review and his performance then, outdoors in the summer heat, was infinitely more impressive. The non-Zappa alumni of P/O are all fine musicians, with their current drummer Jim Ruffi standing out especially. However none of them with the exception of Ruffi would have made it in Zappa’s band, and frankly their overall sound just shrinks in comparison to that found in ZPZ.

All of those criticisms aside, I still found many things to enjoy in their performance. The band played two sets of a solid length, and their set list choices were spectacular. “Big Swifty,” “Little House I Used to Live In,” “RDNZL,” and “City of Tiny Lights” (one of my top 3 Zappa songs of all time) were choices I did not see coming and was thrilled to hear. The band is also very relaxed on stage, and captures the casual atmosphere of what I’ve learned Zappa’s original shows were like much better than ZPZ, who barely ever converse with each other or the crowd outside of Dwzeeil’s semi-awkward banter. Lyrics to favorite Zappa standards were constantly being changed for comedic effect (i.e. Tiger Woods jokes), and the band seemed like they were genuinely enjoying performing the music of one of their idols/friends, for fans who knew and appreciated Zappa for years. There was no encore but given the length of each set I wasn’t crushed. Also, the violin player they featured on some songs is really, really hot, so bonus points there. The audio for both the opener and P/O sounded just fine through out the show, although the bass solo in “Apostrophe” was totally undecipherable, partially due to the player and partially due to the mix.

Left to Right: Eric Svalgard, Ray White, Jim Ruffi, Ike Willis, Andre’ Cholmondeley. There's a bass player and another keyboardist hiding somewhere...

I came away from the show happy that I went, and that’s really all I can ask for from any performance by any band. I do understand why people view P/O to be the ‘secondary’ Zappa cover band, but I would not let this keep you from seeing them perform if you have the chance.  I think P/O is a band for long time Zappa fans, while ZPZ works well for both the hardcore fan and the neophyte. I definitely would prefer to see them in a different venue, as I think BB King kept the crowd reserved and polite, which is just foolish behavior for a concert featuring Zappa’s music. Next time I want to be back in a crowd of people cheering, bouncing, and singing along with the music, otherwise it’s just not Zappa.

Set 1

A Pound For A Brown (On The Bus)
More Trouble Every Day
City Of Tiny Lites
Society Pages>
I’m A Beautiful Guy>
Beauty Knows No Pain>
Charlie’s Enormous Mouth>
Any Downers?
#Zomby Woof
#I’m The Slime (w/ Dumb All Over, Let Me Ride by Dr. Dre)
Tinseltown Rebellion
Big Swifty (w/ Stratus by Billy Cobham, Come Sail Away by Styx, Killer Queen by Queen)
Bamboozled By Love
#Peaches En Regalia
Pick Me, I’m Clean

Set 2

*Montana
*Magic Fingers
*Little House I Used To Live In
*Apostrophe
*#Cosmik Debris
*RDNZL
*Crew Slut
Outside Now
*Florentine Pogen
*Blessed Relief
Evelyn, A Modified Dog>
*San Ber’dino

#Katie Jacoby on violin
*Ed Palermo on sax

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One response

  1. Parker

    Zappa fans should definitely check out the Ed Palermo Big Band. They have three albums of really great big band arrangements of Zappa tunes.

    August 25, 2010 at 4:57 pm

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