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GURNETT: Project/Object was 'Frankly' brilliant

Sunday at the Tralf, Project/Object came rumbling into town celebrating 50 years of Frank Zappa's music. The band, which plays the music of both Frank Zappa & the Mothera of Invention and The Frank Zappa Band, was on top of their game and put on a brilliant performance. It's rare that you get to see world-class musicians playing some of the most difficult music ever written, and Project/Object was up to the task.

The opener was Jamie Holka, a brilliant guitarist who played interpretative oldies with mixed results. His guitar style was amazing, handling percussion, rhythm, melody and sometimes bass all at once. He moved from tapping to strumming to finger-picking to slapping the strings with ease as he performed covers of Steely Dan, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I would never consider knocking Holka's skill at guitar, but I do have an issue with his content. Halfway through his short set, the songs started to sound more like Muzak versions of oldies. I could see people yawning in the crowd. It was beautiful, but if I'm amped up to see Project/Object, the last thing I want is to be lulled to sleep.

Then Ike Willis came out by himself. He apologized for the 12-year absence of Project/Object in Buffalo, promising a return next year, then introduced synthesizer player Don Preston (Zappa contributor from 1966 - 1974), who opened the set by laying down a bizarre, dissonant soundscape much like something Zappa himself would have written. Afterwards, the rest of the Project/Object joined in. Along with Ike Willis on vocals and guitars, the group consisted of Andre Cholmondeley on guitar and vocals, Zappa doppleganger Ryan Berg on drums, Kendal Scott on keyboard and synths, Richard Rutkowski on saxophone and Andrew Walley on bass.

The band went straight into a medley of “Who Needs the Peace Corp?” and “We Are the Other People” from the album We're Only In It for the Money (which, in my opinion, is one of the 10 greatest rock albums ever made). From there it was fan favorite “Montana.” The set also included Zappa mainstays like “Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder,” “Idiot Bastard Son,” “Apostrophe,” “Uncle Remus,” “Who are the Brain Police?” and “Excentrifugal Forz.” The set also included a few instrumental pieces I wasn't familiar with but was easily impressed by, with arrangements so complex I could barely count.

Each musician on stage played brilliantly. Every note, key change and bizarre, inexplicable time signature was played to perfection. There were a few slight issues hearing Preston and Cholmondeley's vocals and some of the lead guitar work, but aside from that, every instrument came through clearly. Ike, seated for the majority of the concert, still has a rich baritone that billowed all throughout The Tralf. He was clearing having a blast. He counted out every song with a loud “1-2-3-4” and conducted the group the same way Zappa did in its heyday. As someone who hasn't seen much live concert footage of Willis prior, his proficiency on guitar was a pleasant surprise to me. Walley, meanwhile, played so quickly that I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd melted his bass at some point.

There aren't many bands one can compare to Project/Object. The most obvious, of course, is Zappa Plays Zappa, which I've also seen. Zappa Plays Zappa has an equal of amount of talent, but if they perform the music of Frank Zappa for a setting like Shea's, Project/Object is Frank Zappa for a bar setting, like it should be. There seemed to be a particular relaxation and joy to Project/Object that I just didn't see in Zappa Plays Zappa. They allowed a little more wiggle room during the originally spoken-word bits of certain tunes, with Willis and crew inserting custom updates (like talking about a certain presidential candidate grabbing women in the crotch, less timely remarks about Tony Blair having sex with a chicken, and, when speaking about the night's presidential debates, “I'm not in the mood for bullshit. I want to hear Zappa music”), all of which Frank would have undoubtedly enjoyed.
It was a fantastic performance played with joy and virtuosity by a phenomenal group of musicians, from younger members like Walley and Rutkowski all the way up to Don Preston (who can rock his ass off for an 84-year-old). Being a Frank Zappa fan since junior high, I can't think of a better compliment than telling them they would have made Frank proud.

Ryan Gurnett is a local musician with an appreciation for other local music. Email him at never_really_been@hotmail.com or find him on Twitter @SirWilliamIdol.

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