GrandMothers of Invention defy age and the complexity of Zappa

Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013


By Joe Barron
jbarron@21st-centurymedia.com


The GrandMothers of Intervention - (L to R) Napoleon Murphy Brock, Max Kutner, Chris Garcia, Dave Johnsen and Don Preston - will resurrect Frank Zappa at ST94 on Sunday, Sept. 29.


There was a time, decades ago, when rock ’n’ roll meant youth and rebellion. To those of us who grew up listening to them, it seemed that first great generation of rock stars would never grow old. Those who did not burn out before they turned 30 would earn the right to stay young forever.

That was an illusion, of course, but as the performers aged, they ― and we ― learned a life-affirming lesson: Youth was never the point. Geezers can swing, too.

Don Preston, who played keyboards with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in the late’60s and ’70s, will turn 81 this month, and while he confesses to a few aches, he’s still up for a game of tennis, his fingers are still nimble, and he is preparing for yet another tour. Preston will appear at the Sellersville Theater Sept. 29 with Napoleon Murphy Brock, another of Zappa’s old band mates, in the latest incarnation of the aptly named GrandMothers of Invention.
The GrandMothers of Intervention - (L to R) Napoleon Murphy Brock, Max Kutner, Chris Garcia, Dave Johnsen and Don Preston - will resurrect Frank Zappa at ST94 on Sunday, Sept. 29.
“I feel great, considering,” Preston said Sept. 10, speaking by phone from his home in California. “I used to wonder, ‘Why do old people move the way they do?’ And now I know.”

The Mothers’ roster has grown thinner through the years. Zappa died 20 years ago next December, a victim of prostate cancer. Jimmy Carl Black, the band’s original drummer, passed away in 2008, and last month, on Aug. 5, the world lost George Duke, the jazz keyboardist who also played with Zappa in the ’70s.

“Rest his soul,” Preston said. “We knew each other pretty well. Once in a while our paths would cross, and it was always a very warm experience.”

To fill out the band, Preston and Brock have recruited younger musicians who grew up on Zappa’s music but never had the privilege of playing with him. Guitarist Max Kutner and bassist Dave Johnsen were children when Zappa died, and they did not exist yet when, in 1975, he released “One Size Fits All,” the album the GrandMothers will play in its entirety at the Sellersville Theater. Preston was surprised and pleased, however, when he discovered he could not stump them on any of the Zappa repertoire.

“They are phenomenal musicians. It’s scary,” he said. “The band is unbelievably tight. Together ― what I mean by tight is being together. We are so together it’s amazing for me, even. The band is really burning.”

They will need to be tight. Zappa’s music is notoriously difficult to play, especially for rockers used to the standard 4/4 backbeat. Like his hero Igor Stravinsky, he favored oddball time signatures like 11/16, and he loved to pit differing meters against one another. Preston did not play on “One Size Fits All,” and in learning the parts, he gathered several live recordings of the material and slowed them down.

On the album, the virtuoso percussionist Ruth Underwood played one section, in 7/8, on marimba, and Preston, who graciously played the passage over the phone, said he did not think anyone could ever duplicate her speed.

“I was given the job of trying to play it. We might be playing it a tiny bit slower,” he said. “One thing we try not to do is imitate the record. First of all, we don’t have the instrumentation to do that. I think to do it is kind of redundant. Zappa never, never played songs like the record.”

The critic Ben Watson called “One Size Fits All” a “skin-tight sequence of songs” that was “highly rated by Zappaphiles and ignored by everyone else.” That’s a pity. The lyrics aren’t pointedly satirical or dirty, as they are in his biggest hits, but the music is some of the most appealing he ever concocted.

The first track, a meditation on flying saucers called “Inca Roads,” inspired some of his most memorable guitar solos in performance, and “Sofa” is a pleasantly danceable waltz, with follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics that, for some reason, were sung in German.

“Some of Zappa music is intellectual, but some of it is really hot. They’re barroom songs. They rock out,” Preston said. “It’s a unique experience to hear this band because it’s so good. When other people are playing so good, it makes you play better also.”

GrandMothers of Invention defy age and the complexity of Zappa GrandMothers of Invention defy age and the complexity of Zappa Reviewed by Klemen Hlupič on 02:07 Rating: 5

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