It’s been twenty-four years since I last saw the Grandmothers, and given that this show was billed as their last ever English show, it’s likely I’ll never see them again.
Part of the reason for me not having seen them since the second gig I ever attended, back in 1994, is that this group, which at various times has featured ex-Mothers of Invention members Don Preston, Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Roy Estrada and others, and which currently consists of Preston, Gardner, percussionist Ed Mann (who played with Frank Zappa from 1977 through 1988) and drummer vocalist Chris Garcia, has had a variety of names to go with its revolving personnel — it’s been billed at times as “The Grandmothers”, “the Grande Mothers”, “the Grandmothers of Invention” (the current name), “the Grande Mothers: Reinvented” and so on, largely depending on what particular lawsuits the famously-litigious Zappa Family Trust have brought against them at any particular time. Given that, it’s been fairly difficult to have alerts for tickets for them, because you never know what the name of the band you’re looking for is.
But I’m still delighted I finally got to see them one final time, at the Band on the Wall on Tuesday.
There’s a minor industry of bands playing Zappa’s music, usually featuring one or two musicians who played with him — there’s Zappa Plays Zappa (run by Zappa’s son Dweezil), The Band From Utopia, Project/Object, The Muffin Men, and many more — but most of those bands are guitar/bass/drum bands, concentrating on the song-based rock material of Zappa’s later years. The Grandmothers are very different. Having initially also been a rock band (though one only playing material from the original Mothers lineup), they are now making a very different kind of music.
This is because to characterise them as a band playing Zappa’s music at all slightly misses the point. Preston and Gardner have been playing together for sixty years (they’re both eighty-five years old and started performing together before my mother was even born) and are both serious jazz musicians — Preston is one of the great masters of jazz synthesiser, and has played with Elvin Jones, Meredith Monk, Nat “King” Cole, and many others (he also made a *great* piano/bass/drums trio album, Transformation, a decade or so back), while Gardner (who plays tenor sax and flute) is best known, other than his work with Zappa, for playing on Tim Buckley’s Starsailor album.
They played together for years before meeting Zappa, and played experimental improvisational music with Zappa before he invited them to join the Mothers for the band’s second album, Absolutely Free, and when they joined the band was also when it expanded from being merely a rock band to being something altogether more interesting. Preston and Gardner are not, primarily, rock musicians — indeed, the reason Preston didn’t join the Mothers until their second album was that he couldn’t play “Louie Louie” properly, being unable to do dumb rock music at the time — they’re from an avant-garde jazz tradition.
And so when Preston and Gardner take to the stage with Ed Mann (who plays an electronic mallet-based percussion instrument I’ve never seen before, but which at various times can sound like a marimba, a vibraphone, a glockenspiel and so on) and Chris Garcia, what they’re *not* doing for the most part is playing Zappa’s rock songs. In fact, with no guitar or bass, they *can’t* do that.
Instead, they’re taking Zappa’s melodic themes (as well as a few of Preston’s own compositions) and using them as a basis for extended jazz improvisation.
Which isn’t to say Zappa fans won’t find much they recognise here — the band *do* perform several of Zappa’s vocal songs, and do so well, splitting the vocals between Garcia (who has a similar Mexican-Californian accent to Roy Estrada, and so can vocally get across much of the same attitude that Estrada and Ray Collins put into their vocals on the early Mothers albums) and Preston (who weirdly sounds *exactly* like Peter Tork of the Monkees sounds now — so much so that I spent much of the show trying to figure out why his voice is so familiar). And even when they’re playing Preston’s compositions or in an extended improvisation, it still *sounds* like the Mothers — Preston’s melodic sense is very similar to Zappa’s, with lots of extended modal melody lines and chromatic runs, while Gardner’s unique saxophone tone is one of the most characteristic sounds of the Mothers’ 1966-70 discography.
And they’re all excellent musicians, too — quite shockingly so given their age. Preston is definitely showing his age in other ways — a couple of times, as he was about to start a song, he had to ask one of the other band members “remind me how this one goes?” and they’d hum a couple of bars. But as soon as he actually started playing, he was astonishing, combining a Cecil Taylor style keyboard attack with his own unique sense of phrasing and use of sound effects. Gardner was able to go from playing those horribly extended melodies (which must be absolute *torture* for anyone playing a wind instrument, let alone someone in his eighties, just because sometimes you’d have as much as sixteen bars of fast quavers without a chance to draw breath) to some fantastic atonal skronking, Mann got to show off his soloing prowess in a small group in a way he never really got to when playing in Zappa’s larger, more rock-focussed, bands, and Garcia on drums managed to guide the band through the ridiculously complex time signature changes while never losing sight of the groove.
The band sounded marvelously full, too, considering what a small group it is, mostly because of Preston. He was often playing a synth with multiple patches, playing a Fender Rhodes part with his right hand while playing a Moog bass with his left — and often, during the extended solos, he would record himself playing a repeated bass figure and loop it, essentially allowing himself to play with three hands during many sections.
It was, in short, one of the most exciting gigs I’ve been to, and one that was about as far from being a “tribute act”, which is how this band are normally thought of, as one can imagine. The only thing which marred it at all, slightly, was the portion of the audience who acted like this wasn’t a musical performance but a trivia quiz, and like any time any of the band members said anything the audience’s job was to interrupt it by shouting out a line or catchphrase from a Zappa song which was somehow connected to what they were saying.
The setlist below is only sort-of-approximately what was played — in particular, I *know* they played at least one more of Preston’s own pieces than I’ve listed here. There was one I recognised, I think from Preston’s album Vile Foamy Ectoplasm, but I’m not very good at linking instrumentals with titles. Also, most of these were just starting points for improvisation, and often they’d introduce snippets of other well-known pieces, usually as little musical jokes — I noticed bits of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Peter & The Wolf, “Take Five”, and others, and no doubt there were bits of other things that I didn’t notice. Basically there were four or five big blocks of music, which occasionally resolved themselves into recognisable themes.
(My memory is also playing tricks slightly, because I bought a couple of Grandmothers albums at the show and have listened to them since, so now I’m not absolutely sure if some of what I remember them playing is just stuff on the CDs that wasn’t in the show — for example I *think* they didn’t play “King Kong”, and my memory of them playing it just comes from having heard it on the CD, but I’m not 100% sure).
The band came out wearing spangly blue jackets, introduced themselves as Ruben and the Jets, and (to a cheesy karaoke-style backing track, with only Gardner playing his instrument) sang “Stuff Up The Cracks”, with Garcia on lead and Preston grumbling the bass vocals before taking their places at their instruments and (with the exception of Preston) getting rid of the jackets.
There was then a performance of “Debra Kadabra”, with Garcia on vocals. They then segued into some Varese-style percussion experimentation, which slowly resolved itself into a melody I didn’t recognise at the time, but which I now think was Preston’s piece “Free Energy”, the title track of the band’s new album. “Duke of Prunes” followed, with if I remember rightly the vocals switching between Garcia and Preston, and after that came a medley of “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” and Preston’s piece “Ruth” (dedicated to Ruth Underwood, with the band describing themselves now as Ruth-less).
I’m *pretty* sure that “Dupree’s Paradise” came in around here, too, but it may have been between “Debra Kadabra” and “Free Energy”. And I think the first set ended with “Dog Breath In The Year Of The Plague”, with Garcia singing.
Set two opened with Preston and Gardner coming out and performing George Carlin’s “I’m a Modern Man” monologue as a dialogue, before they talked briefly about how Zappa was known for stealing other people’s tunes, before playing a medley of “Hey Joe” (sung by Preston, and at the same tempo as Hendrix’s recording) and “Flower Punk” (done as a duet between Preston and Gardner). I don’t think this is *entirely* fair to talk about as “theft”, because I doubt there was a single person who ever heard We’re Only In It For The Money without realising what Zappa was parodying, but then I’m not the one who had to sue Zappa for unpaid royalties on recordings, which Preston and Gardner did.
After this, much of the second set was made up of long improvisations. There might have been another Preston song in here, but there was definitely a performance of “Pound For A Brown On The Bus”, and a medley of “Holiday In Berlin Full Blown”, a generic twelve-bar blues with “woke up this morning” lyrics sung by Preston, “Little House I Used To Live In”, and “Overture To A Holiday In Berlin” (I think performed in that order). The show ended with an encore of “More Trouble Every Day”.
I would say for my readers to go and see this band any chance they get, but since this is their farewell tour, there may not be many of those chances. However, Gardner and Preston still clearly love performing, so if you’re in the US there might still be more chances to see them either as the Grand(e)mothers (of Invention/Revisited) or with their “Don & Bunk Show”.
Either way, I’m massively glad I got this chance, and sad I didn’t get more of them — and I hope if I live to be eighty-five I’m a thousandth as good at what I do then as Preston and Gardner are at their jobs now.
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