Words & Photos by Roger Weisman
If there is a theme that unites the music of Project/Object, the accomplished Frank Zappa tribute band, and Brand X, the classic Anglo-American prog/fusion band, it would the combination of precision and mischief. Both are bands consisting of virtuosic players executing music that is, frankly, difficult as all hell, and they do with a healthy dose of snarky humor.
Project/Object kicked off the evening with the driving “Cruising for Burgers.” Tightly and powerfully delivering the arrangement that Zappa had created for the 1976 New York Halloween run, it was as if they were telling the audience that playtime was over, and yet it was just about to begin. The band, led by guitarist André Cholmondeley, somehow manages the feat of performing Zappa’s music in a way that is disciplined and respectful, yet still irreverent, like the man himself.
Following that with “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy,” they brought out their Zappa/Mothers alumni, vocalist and woodwind player Napoleon Murphy Brock, and guitarist Denny Walley (both of whom played on the 1975 album, Bongo Fury, on which the song first appeared). The band continued through a set which favored material from those two men’s stints with Zappa’s touring bands. The Roxy and Elsewhere classic “Pygmy Twylyte” was reinvigorated with Napoleon and the band segueing into Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” while Denny deftly handled the vocals on “City of Tiny Lights,” a song he sang in the Zappa band in late 1978.
They also trotted out the relatively obscure “T’Mershi Duween,” a short burst of an instrumental that tests the dexterity of all musicians who attempt it. Playing it at a slightly slower tempo than the Mothers did, their rendition highlighted the rhythmic sophistication of the piece, sometimes easy to overlook in the flurry of notes in the blazingly fast performances of the 1974 Mothers tour.
They ended their (all too short) set with a suite consisting of the Roxy-era arrangements of classic 60s Mothers of Invention songs. “Idiot Bastard Son” and “Son of Orange County” were, as they always had been, pointedly political, but with a new villain in the story (“the words from your Trump… COVFEFE!… I just can’t believe you are such a fool”). The band then kicked into the Watts riot inspired social commentary “More Trouble Every Day” featuring a tasty but cutting solo by Walley before the band left the stage.
Brand X entered in darkness to the aural backdrop of atmospheric night sounds, a calm preceding another storm, before the band kicked into “Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria,” a churning funky number and fan favorite from the band’s first album Unorthodox Behaviour.
As they worked their way through a solid set of classic songs, they balanced fidelity to the original renditions, while leaving plenty of room for sly experimentation. It was a solid mix of their more well known material as well as some deeper cuts such as “Noddy Goes to Sweden” and “Cambodia” (from the 1980 album, Do They Hurt?) both of which sounded far better in the live setting than their somewhat dry sounding studio productions. The tease of the Seals and Crofts song “Summer Breeze” in “Why Should I Lend You Mine…” was a nice touch as well.
The band was in excellent form, continuing to explore the dynamics of its new line-up. Founding guitarist John Goodsall’s fiery licks were ever present, along with some solid chunky rhythm playing, with his new orange Telecaster (“orange is the new X”) cutting through the sound nicely. Percy’s fretless bass work is the stuff of legend, alternately adding deep, gurgling funk, and dazzling runs and lead lines.
They have a significantly harder edged sound than in the past, due in no small part to new drummer Kenny Grohowski, who replaced the departing Livestock era drummer, Kenwood Dennard, who participated in the initial reunion in 2016 and early 2017, but bowed out before last summer’s tour. Grohowski plays with a beastly intensity, while somehow managing to drop in delicate insinuations between the beats. Whereas with Dennard, percussionist Scott Weinberger’s playing would intermesh, playing alongside Grohowski, Weinberger inhabits a space that floats above the beat, at times adding atmospheric colors while at others adding an aerial assault to Grohowski’s ground attack. The sound is vicious.
Once again, keyboardist Chris Clark has shown himself to be the band’s not-so-secret weapon, and his solo piano turn on the Phil Collins composition “…Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine After All” is constantly expanding in both length and breadth. Using the simple melody as a jumping off point, Clark weaves the piece into both a lyrical piece of work, and an astounding showcase of his chops. There are shades of Keith Jarrett one minute, mind-bending displays of hand independence reminiscent of Keith Emerson the next, and all seamlessly woven together. A solo piano concert should not be ruled out.
Like their opening band, they were not above some levity themselves, breaking after the second song for founding guitarist John Goodsall to introduce Percy, simply to have him tell a couple of random jokes, which elicited a few laughs and groans (the content of the jokes is beyond the scope of this piece, but let’s just say that the punch lines were: “Don’t go there anymore” and “I can clearly see you’re [your] nuts). Those who thought it strange that the band members would lay a couple of deliberately cringe-worthy jokes on the audience in the middle of their show had obviously never read the liner notes in their early records.
This new iteration of Brand X is formidable indeed. Their sound just seems to get more intense with each tour, and they seemed to be having fun onstage, finding new surprises within the material.
Perhaps the only problem in the evening as a whole was that there wasn’t more of it. Project/Object’s set felt oddly truncated (not surprising for an opening slot, but still…), and Brand X had far from worn out their welcome. Okay, maybe if both bands played everything we wanted to hear it might have ended up being a four or five hour evening, but for a crowd of prog/fusion music obsessives, that’s a blink of an eye. We have long attention spans.
Cruising for Burgers
Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy
Pound for a Brown
Pygmy Twylyte (including “The Message”)
City of Tiny Lights
Idiot Bastard Son
Son of Orange County
More Trouble Every Day
Smacks of Euphoric Hysteria
Noddy Goes to Sweden
Not Good Enough – See Me!
Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already)…
…Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine after All
…And So to F…
Encore: Malaga Virgin
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