It was about 5 degrees in Chicago all weekend and our set was at 8pm each night – a little early compared to our usual headlining single-set spots at Martyrs. All in all I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from these shows leading up to them.
Our bassist, Kyle and I got there around the same time each night, and each night the four guys in the band who were not Ike Willis and Ray White seemed like they had been rehearsing all day long. They were always deep into it when we got there and, as I came to realize, playing two really long sets of Zappamusic each night has got to be challenging – that shit is fucking hard!
It was amazing to see these guys, all varying degrees of older-than-us, driving a van through the freezing cold and snow to get to the club each day, soundcheck and rehearse the shit out of Frank Zappa songs. Each night, Ike Willis would be at the bar eating and drinking, talking on the phone, watching college football, all while reading, as the other guys rehearsed. Ray would be upstairs resting because he was a little under the weather (“I lost my voice for the 4th time in nearly 40 years,” he said). An almost-predictable dynamic, but any time someone had a question on a tune, this chord change or that, hits here or there, they’d yell it to Ike from the stage. As if he’d been listening the whole time and not really reading a Clive Cussler book, he’d put his hand on his head and mumble something and yell back the answer – always correct. Andre, P/O’s guitar player and the brains behind the operation, said Ike has a “steel trap memory,” when I asked him if he thought Ike and Ray had to practice the tunes they recorded back in the day with Zappa to play with P/O.
Anyways…its always a little weird when you’re the supporting act for a seasoned group of older dudes, especially when there are some legendary cats on board, and you want to go up to the green room at your home turf venue and chill before the show. Someone might freak out that you’re drinking all the beers or making too much noise and interrupting their pre gig yoga routine, just taking up space, what have you. However, these guys, especially Ike, Ray and André, were all extremely gracious and friendly to us. André is younger than the other two and is a well-known tour manager in the prog rock world, but he’s also an amazing guitarist, a knowledgeable gearhead and all around fun guy to talk shop with.
Ray, even before he heard the band, was nothing but outgoing and hilarious, cracking jokes and owning the conversation in the room whenever he felt like it. After he heard us play though, he was nothing but complements which really meant a lot from a guy who can play like he can and who has had such a long career in music. Ike, who was still hanging at the bar during our soundcheck on the first night, came up to us shaking his finger in the air saying “You guys are bad, where’d you learn all those notes,” and had nothing but nice things to say all weekend. It was an honor to hear positive feedback from a guy of such freakish talent and legendary status in the world we still are aspiring to make a dent in.
That is all first impression stuff though. When Project/Object get onstage and get down to business, they are an amazingly tight group! It’s not like Phish playing “Peaches” in 1989 or something like that. P/O has found the same synth tones, the same goofy vocal effects, the same intense arrangements, and have the same level of musicianship and integrity that Zappa’s bands must have had when Ike and Ray were on tour with him. And to top it off, on this tour, they have the original lead vocal combo from so many of the awesome late 70s/early 80s albums. They really have taken the whole Zappamusic thing to the highest level I’ve seen personally.
What struck me most about P/O and what was the most inspiring thing about the weekend is that these cats, for the most part, are not all that young any more and still destroying clubs with challenging music (for some perspective – I turned 25 this week). They are on the road in harsh conditions, bringing Zappamusic to adoring crowds each night IN THE WINTER. They get to the club early. They rehearse all day. They spend every second listening to, playing, and talking about Frank Zappa’s music, trying to get it as right as humanly possible. Ike and Ray remember the tunes like they recorded Joe’s Garage last week.
After all the setup, planning and rehearsal, they then get up and play for like four hours every night. Each show was two lengthy sets and that is hard fucking work. What became very clear is that these guys all love Frank Zappa’s music and are spending two weeks on the road rehearsing the shit out of it, playing to packed houses every night and giving the Zappa fans a hell of a show that, in this particular case, they have not seen the likes of since the mid 1980s. They could do a lesser job and still make money, still impress people and all of that, but these guys are old school touring musicians who want to get it right for their own sake, and for the composer’s sake. Doing a half-assed job is just not in the cards. They respect the music and they respect the shit out of Zappa.
Like I said onstage each night, we were lucky to be there with them and are thankful to have been a part of it.