Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Show Review: The Grandmothers of Invention and the New, Old Magic of Rock and Roll

Don Preston, deep in thought.

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were always my Grateful Dead; given the chance, I would have followed them anywhere. I grew up listening to Zappa's zany and complex songs, they got under my skin and deep into my brain. From the age of maybe four, I remember Dad played the Mothers for us kids, sneakily because our mom considered it to be 'inappropriate.' Having been far too young to see the original group live, I was ecstatic when I got the opportunity to watch the newest incarnation of the band, the Grandmothers of Invention. Though they've been performing for ten years together, the current tour is their first in the United States. As you may or may not know, Europeans go completely nuts for Zappa; the band has been having a whirlwind of a time touring both well-known and remote locations on the continent. For a brief time, though, they're rocking on their home turf.

The band played at the Infinity Hall on Route 44 in Norfolk on May 2nd. There was a cozy meet-and-greet before the show, and the audience filed in to the absolutely stunning music hall around 7:30. Infinity Hall is something else-- classic and comfortable theater seating, a conveniently located and surprisingly cheap bar, and mesmerizing stage setup and lighting. As they began, the frontman, Napoleon Murphy Brock, took control of the scene, and the audience was instantly hypnotized. He is a charismatic and beautiful man. In the beginning, the fans were hollering various requests, which Brock addressed immediately-- the only circumstance in which the band will ever take a request is if they are presented with ten Finnish marks. A rare commodity which, unsurprisingly, no one seemed to have. That settled that-- the performance began.

My dad, Arthur Palmer (center), rocking it with Don Preston (left) and Chris Garcia (right).

As Napoleon proclaimed, the Grandmothers are indeed 'not from this planet.' They are better than that. He reminded us that this, the music of the ages, manifests in a performance without tapes, without lip synching, without pretense. And when it comes down to it, fun is the name of the game. You could see how much fun these guys were having on stage, how much they loved this. They walked a line between ultimate precision and rock's classic spirit of improvisation; the math of their music was tight, clean, and an honest execution of Zappa's vision. Because when it comes to Zappa's compositions, timing is everything. The transitions were abrupt, and in "Village of the Sun" they were punctuated by stunning silences. You know a quintet is truly practiced when they can cut themselves off in unison, with the sudden absence of noise paralyzing the room.

The incomparable Napoleon Murphy Brock lent me a moment of his time!

Through it all, Brock continued to dance with endearing sass, Elvis hips rocking side to side, knowing smiles, wailing on his sax and utilizing it as a beloved partner. Brock's stage presence and charisma were unstoppable, and his shrieks and high kicks put other rockers to shame. The entire band's dynamic was unquestionably powerful, and on point, but his presentation and performance as a ringmaster pulled everything together. When he and Don Preston engaged in duets, pure soul spilled forth; they created something tangible and loving in their shared vocals. On Don: it's amazing to see a 79-year old rock icon put forth a performance that's streets ahead of the younger generation, and when he pulled out an Ipod Touch and brought the house down with a synthesizer app, well, I knew I was at an epic, game-changing show. It's a shame that concerts this invigorating are so hard to find in the modern age. This was not a repetition of the old Mothers of Invention gang, but a vibrant continuation of its legacy, reinvented and rising like a phoenix.

The transitions were mighty; we rolled from metal-tinged guitar solos to sax-and-vocal spotlights, sexy and jazzy, without missing a beat. And then an enthusiastic and raucous keyboard solo from Preston, sliding right back into frenetic, violent brass-led rock that would turn John Zorn green with envy. Chris Garcia was masterful on his impressively large and complex drum set, providing the reliable backbone for each song with steadily building beats. His rendition of Captain Beefheart's vocals was impressive, flowing faithful and nostalgic in a cover song. And in the second act, finally, we got a beautiful bass solo from Tom Fowler; displaying confidence and groove, his practiced hands traversed the fretboard with ease. These are rock legends, and they lived up to the hype. Additionally, the multiple guitar solos from relative newcomer Robbie Seahag Mangano were flawlessly interwoven into the fabric of the songs. According to one of the soundboard guys, this was only his second live performance with the Grandmothers, as their previous guitarist recently left. Mangano has played both bass and guitar with many post-Zappa projects and tribute bands, and it's obvious that this music is close to his heart. He seemed unstoppable, and he clearly has a brilliant career ahead of him.

The whole gang; L-R Garcia, Preston, Fowler, Mangano, Brock.
Photo courtesy of Boulder Theater website,

To see Brock doing Vogue hands while singing the opening lines of "Cheepnis," -- "I eat a hot dog, it tastes real good!" -- was to know the true meaning of pastiche. We had ourselves a three ring circus going, and the show was perfectly punctuated by a marriage proposal near the very end. (She said yes.) After that surprise, the band led us out on a high note, again mashing up pop culture with a Grandmaster Flash medley. When the band came back to the howling crowd for one last encore, we all felt privileged. We got another song, another few minutes of this pervasive joy. To be in the moment, to be free of the small worries of the outside world. If you have the slightest chance to catch a future Grandmothers show, I'd encourage it, I'd even stake my reputation as a human being on it. These guys have the spirit of rock locked down.

(editors note: Chelsea in the process of finishing an interview with Grandmother of Invention, and will be posting the results very soon, so keep a look out in the next few days!)


Bob Hand said...

Chelsea: did you get a copy of the set list and could you forward it to me

Anonymous said...

Hi! I was the guitarist at this show I'd like to say, BLAM, soundboard guy was wrong. I've been playing with the Grandmothers since 2009. (So it's not that impressive that I was able to play the stuff as easily as I did.) But thanks for the kind words!