The GrandMothers of Invention - The Kessler Theater - 8/14/12
The GrandMothers of Invention, The Tidbits
Melissa Hennings Brock (center) with the GrandMothers
The Kessler Theater
Tuesday, August 14
Tuesday night, a storm brought much-needed rain to the Metromess, and a van brought the GrandMothers of Invention to the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff for two sets of impeccably-performed music from the Frank Zappa canon. After soundchecking, three of the GrandMothers - reed-playing frontman Napoleon Murphy Brock, keyboardist Don Preston and drummer/singer Chris Garcia - headed across Davis Street to Nova for a bite to eat. A contingent of concertgoers from Fort Worth, including this writer, was seated nearby. Hearing Brock conversing with the waiter stirred up memories of the "room service" routine he used to do with Zappa.
Back at the Kessler, the weeknight crowd was heavy on baby boomers in Zappa T-shirts, with a smattering of younger folks, some of whom appeared to be with their parents. One fan drove all the way from San Angelo.
Opening band the Tidbits displayed a lot of the anarchic spirit of the early Mothers of Invention. Multi-instrumentalist Kim Corbet and drummer Gerard Bendiks hit the stage playing, Corbet on trombone and Bendiks on cymbals. Guitarist Kenny Withrow was already in place, tinkering with his array of effects. The Tidbits' set consisted of equal parts chaos, virtuosity, humor and deep listening.
Between the three of them, they commanded a wide tonal palette, with Corbet's keyboards and Withrow's guitar occasionally emulating each other and Bendiks presiding over a plethora of percussion, scraping beaters against drum heads and cymbals, as well as kicking the traps in the conventional manner. Corbet used a harmonizer to good effect on his trombone and vocals; much of the humor came from his vocal tomfoolery, in which snippets of mundane conversation were morphed into found poetry or pure sound for its own sake.
The GrandMothers are significant in that they're performing difficult compositions originally recorded by larger ensembles with just five instrumentalists, four of whom also sing. Zappa's an artist who wore a few different hats in his lifetime, sometimes simultaneously: magisterial musician's musician, peddler of cheap laughs, cantankerous social critic. The GrandMothers focus on the musical aspects, omitting some of the "hits" (no "Bobby Brown," no "Dyna-Moe Humm") in favor of jaw-dropping ensemble precision and solo wonderment.
On stage, Brock's an ebullient presence, seemingly in perpetual motion. He's also an engaging master of ceremonies, who responded to audience requests with the promise that the band would perform them, if the requester had ten Finnish marks (an allusion to the You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 2 album). After Brock welcomed the audience and warned against "posting videos on YouTube and pissing off Gail Zappa," bassist Tom Fowler - a mainstay, along with Brock, of Zappa's band from 1973 to 1976 - kicked off the signature ostinato from "A Pound For a Brown On the Bus," and the GrandMothers embarked on a wild ride that included 1974 live album Roxy & Elsewhere in its entirety, minus "Be-Bop Tango".
The first few numbers - "Pound," "Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy" and "Cheepnis" - demonstrated what a powerful outfit the GrandMothers are. Guitarist Robbie Mangano is a superb technician who solos with fire and originality, filling out arrangements by covering parts originally played by instruments missing from this ensemble. Drummer Chris Garcia studied tuned percussion with Zappa alumnus Ruth Underwood and auditioned for the band by playing the parts that it took two drummers to play on Roxy. He handles Zappa's tricky meters with aplomb, and took Captain Beefheart's vocal turn on "Debra Kadabra."
The presence of Preston, a synthesizer pioneer who was playing experimental music before he met Zappa, was a particular treat. A month shy of 80 years old, he performed with the energy of a person half his age, at one point kicking his leg out from beneath the keys in tandem with Brock. He was also responsible for some of the evening's most colorful bits of stage business, like pulling Easter eggs out of his mouth during a bluesy piano solo. Preston took Zappa's vocal parts on "Trouble Every Day" and "Penguin in Bondage," a surprise, since he's not known as a singer.
Musical highlights included a suite of songs from Burnt Weenie Sandwich, and the triptych "Village of the Sun"/"Echidna's Arf (Of You)"/"Don't You Ever Wash That Thing." The songs in the sequence "Oh No"/"Son of Orange County"/"Trouble Every Day," socio-political observations Zappa penned in the turbulent '60s, retain their resonance in this election year (including a "Mitt Romney!" interjection from Brock in the middle of the line, "I just can't believe you are such a fool").
By the way: Brock's comments indicated that the GrandMothers plan to continue touring the U.S., focusing on a different album on each tour. With the Zappa Family Trust getting ready to re-release the composer's catalog yet again, perhaps the time is right to expose new generations of fans to this music, and to give superannuated ones an unexpected opportunity to hear it performed by live musicians who were there when it was created. We live in hope.