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This article by Peter Mladineo was prepared for the March 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Red Bank Fills a Zappa Void
Guitarist Andre Cholmondeley remembers the day Frank
Zappa, the Southern California icon of oddity, died at age 52 —
December 4, 1993 — struck down by prostate cancer. "A friend
of mine called me. I put on Cable News and there it was. I put some
Zappa on real loud and shed a tear," he says.
Cholmondeley (you can pronounce it "Chumley"), like thousands
of other Zappa heads worldwide, felt robbed. Zappa, the prolific iconoclast
known for his outlandish perfectionism and his harsh demands on his
band — top notch musicians they were — and his lude criticisms
of the perverse Southern California world he was from, was no ordinary
rock star. Some would insist that his complex, experimental, and often
zany music would have put him on the map with history’s great composers
— Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart.
Ten years on and Cholmondeley’s Red bank-based Zappa-inspired cover
band, Project/Object, which grew from a jam session in his basement
every year to honor the Zappa’s birthday, is again touring with a
date at Conduit on Saturday, March 7.
But why the interest in a cover band? Well, Zappa music is "repertory
for a fine-tune philharmonic with a collective case of Tourette’s,"
says the San Francisco Chronicle. "The late composer’s gargantuan,
technically-imposing output doesn’t exactly lend itself to facile
cover songs by bar-band hacks."
Project/Object started to emerge as one of the pre-eminent Zappa masters
in 2001, embarking on its first coast-to-coast tour, selling out New
York City’s major stomp, Irving Plaza, on Halloween while raising
$10,000 for prostate cancer research.
For Zappa enthusiasts, this is about as close to the real thing as
one can get. For this tour Project/Object features three sidemen
from Zappa’s various bands. Vocalist Ike Willis sang for Zappa from
1978 to 1988 and is best known for his performance as Joe on Zappa’s
cultish "Joe’s Garage" album.
Napolean Murphy Brock crooned with the maestro from 1974 to 1984 on
his phenomenal albums "Roxy and Elsewhere" and "One Size
Fits All." He also appeared on Zappa’s top-selling record, "Sheik
Yerbouti" (notable for some of Zappa’s nastier lyrics, "Bobby
Brown Goes Down" and "Jewish Princess"). Both Willis and
Brock sang together on Zappa’s "Thingfish" rock opera.
While Willis and Brock toured with Project/Object last year, this
year’s lineup has the added boost of Mothers of Invention member Don
Preston, a 70-year-old keyboardist. Preston appeared on most of those
early classic Mothers albums and plans to record original music with
the Brandenburg Symphony in November.
The surplus of Zappa vets not only beefs up the music bill, it also
serves as a testament to this tribute band, says Cholmondeley. "At
our best moment many of Zappa’s most important people said, `Hey man,
that’s great.’ Certainly we hit the mark a lot of the time."
That’s important in a field rife with competition. Cholmondeley
counts two dozen Zappa cover bands in the world, with five or six
in the U.S., and others in more far flung locales. "I just found
about one in Montreal, Quebec. There’s one in Brazil, there’s a few
in Italy. We’ve become friends with most of the above. A lot of people
are trying to keep it alive," he says.
One little-known tribute to Frank Zappa is a high-class bronze Zappa
bust that stands in remote Vilnius, Lithuania. Erected by the local
Zappa fan club with the help of a post-Soviet pop radio station, it
makes the tiny Baltic country the only nation on earth to host a statue
of Zappa. The laid-back Europeans honor the musician more as a great
20th-century composer than simply as a So-Cal ’60s weirdo with dirty
lyrics (not a word of which, Zappa always said, were untrue).
The 38-year-old Cholmondeley, who lives in Red Bank and has an associates
degree in computer science from Middlesex County College (Class of
1985), attests that he’s pretty tough on his bandmates — but not
as severe as the maestro was once upon a time.
"Zappa was just a hardass on his own musicians, in a good way
because he demanded a good performance. In some ways, yeah, I demand
a lot of the band and the crew. We do long sets of music every night.
Not much sleep, not much pay. You’re not getting anything for it except
the appreciation, the love of the music, and the love of the fans,"
The tour tentatively ends in April at B.B. King’s Music Hall where
the band’s first album, "The Dream of the Dog," is due to
debut. The disc will feature original material by the group —
"75 minutes of live improvised material" done in the Zappa
bent, says Cholmondeley.
"The thing is that Zappa would always do some improvisation every
night, no matter what tour. His first public appearance show was on
the Steve Allen Show in the late ’50s. He actually improvised with
a bicycle. From the very beginning of his musical career, improvisation
and the free-form attitude has always been a backbone."
With the Zappa vets leading the vocals and Cholmondeley’s ability
to mimick Zappa’s profoundly prickly and discombobulated guitar solos,
a warmth of familiarity is breathed into the void.
And the fans seem to agree. According to Cholmondeley, Project/Object
is becoming a prime destination for former Zappaheads. "We have
people who go to eight, ten shows in row, who would drive across the
country. We’re filling in the blanks for them. They used to do that
for Frank too," says Cholmondeley. Fortunately for U.S. 1 readers,
a night at nearby Conduit makes a cheaper date than a cross-country
rendezvous with the beautiful fringe.
— Peter Mladineo
Trenton, 609-656-1199. Music of Frank Zappa. Over 21. $17. Friday,
March 7, 8 p.m.
$17 at the doo
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