The Grandmothers at Porgy & Bess, Vienna
This concert was billed as “The Music of Frank Zappa performed by Original Members of the Mothers of Invention”, which is a bit of a mouthful, but the band are basically the latest incarnation of ‘The Grandmothers of Invention’. Bunk Gardner and Don Preston played with the Mothers from ‘Absolutely Free’, forming an important part of the early band’s sound and playing on some of the true classic albums in Zappa’s extensive discography.
Two band members were absent from the show, making this a rare appearance for the ‘Grandmothers Power Trio’, but despite this they managed to tackle some pretty complex music without too much compromise.
Starting off with a question and answer session that failed to take off, perhaps because the audience just wanted to hear the music, the three performers put on a ‘very dynamite show’ with anecdotes, music and a healthy slab of humour. I last saw The Grandmothers in the early 90’s at King Tut’s in Glasgow, when Jimmy Carl Black was also in the band, but this was a quite different experience. Before beginning, Don Preston announced that the evening’s entertainment would be dedicated to Gail Zappa, who had passed away the night before: a touching moment from a couple of guys who had locked horns with the Zappas over the years.
Opening with a “Mother People” that seemed overly tentative, I started to get the feeling that this could be a night of two faded greats fumbling their way through their greatest hits. Notes were missed, the sax was almost apologetic in its quietness and the pace was lethargic. Then the first solos arrived and the sax soared, the keyboards lifted and the drums meshed in; suddenly all was right.
The easy option for such a trio might have been to stick to Zappa’s simpler tunes, or even just stay within the bounds of the more jazz-based numbers, but they jumped into and pulled off more complex pieces like “T’Mershi Duween” with aplomb. Highlights included a beautiful “Sofa”, a slightly bonkers layered vocal “Brain Police” and a theatrical “Flower Punk / Hey Joe” medley. It was interesting to see Preston, an early pioneer in the use of synthesizers, embracing the latest technology in his eighties to play a synth solo on iphone (from a distance it looked like Bebot, but it was hard to tell for sure) during “Holiday in Berlin”; it’s never too late to try something new!
There were some rather shambolic moments, some more dropped notes and missed lyrics, but these rough edges gave the band a character that is missing from some bands playing Zappa music and are forgivable as a lead-in to the glorious moments when it all fits into place. In some ways it put me in mind of Van der Graaf Generator when they’re pushing the limits: sometimes it doesn’t quite work, but when it does it more than justifies the near-misses.