Frank Zappa’s gigantic and strange musical legacy, fraught with continuous lineup changes and eternal disagreement among those involved, is no less complicated in 2012. The notoriously fickle Zappa Estate is, presumably, less than pleased with the continued existence of the GrandMothers of Invention, a group that currently features three prominent Zappa alumni from the original Mothers. (The machinations of that issue go far deeper than you care about hearing here.) In any case, Frank’s fiercely reverent fans have another reason to cheer – the GrandMothers plan on hitting the road with gusto in 2012, bringing their respectful and downright reverent performances of Zappa music to hungry freaks everywhere. True lovers of Zappa know that these guys – Napoleon Murphy Brock, Don Preston, and Tom Fowler – have as much right to play the music as anyone.
A busy spring night in Carrboro found the quintet at North Carolina’s most legendary rock venue, Cat’s Cradle, and it’s hard to say which side of the audience/band equation enjoyed the show more. About 100 dudes and a handful of ladies comprised the audience, and they hung on every note as if the maestro himself were present. Brock was typically animated, slipping and sliding his way around the stage during the opening fanfare of “Let’s Move to Cleveland”. The pairing of “Oh No” (one of Frank’s favorites) with “Trouble Every Day” – a song that has been relevant for most of its existence – saw guitarist Miroslav Tadic alternately sight-reading from a music stand and cutting loose over a bluesy foundation. Preston was enthusiastic beyond his 80 years, particularly during a lengthy instrumental journey that featured magic of two kinds: some (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek actual magic by Preston, and a bit of inspiration via the Animoog iPhone app. After working out a blistering solo on the touch-screen, he cannily produced a wisp of smoke to make it appear as if the phone had been fried.
After the monster-movie ode “Cheepnis” ended the set, there was some discussion in the crowd about how the band hadn’t stuck to the billing of the show. Their website advertised a performance of the Roxy and Elsewhere album in its entirety, but they had barely performed any of that material at all. Instead, they sprinkled tunes from the much-loved live record throughout the show. Strangely, Brock introduced a couple of songs that aren’t on the album as Roxy material. Due to lack of publicity, most people probably weren’t even aware of the billing, and those who were aware simply wrote it up as more curious behavior among this curious musical family. In any case, set two delivered the kind of setlist magic and unrestrained instrumental work that most were there to see.
Zappa’s vocal tunes have caught a lot of flak from a critical standpoint over the years, but they’re often the basis for intensely enjoyable improvisations and that was certainly the case. Another random blast of Roxy material, “Village of the Sun,” opened the set and segued satisfyingly into “Echidna’s Arf (Of You),” just as on the album. Once referred to by Dweezil Zappa as “a rollercoaster of notes,” the maddeningly complex “Echidna’s Arf” is certainly the song to prove a band’s dedication to the music, and the GrandMothers nailed the song with necessary vigor. The crowd delighted in a nifty reading of “Peaches en Regalia” before “Pygmy Twylyte” opened up into a monster jam. With the band traveling into a decidedly un-Zappa-like space, Brock filled the jam’s funky spaces with lyrics from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” The climax of the set featured Tadic wrestling some truly disgusting solos out of the stomping “Carolina Hardcore Ecstacy” outro, and he sounded more like Zappa during that moment than at any other point of the show. With the crowd ravenous for more and shouting requests from the obvious (“Muffin Man”) to the oblique (“Po-jama People”), Brock and company returned for a snarling version of “I’m the Slime” that seemed to satiate the mob. Rounding out the night with the boogie-infused coda of “Be-bop Tango,” the band looked as exuberant as when the show began, if markedly sweatier. During the show, Brock and Preston both attested to the life-giving power of the music that they’re still having a blast playing after 40-plus years, and it would seem that they, along with Fowler, are living proof.