Project/Object | 01.03 | Milwaukee

Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Joel Berk

Project/Object :: 01.03.10 :: Miramar Theatre :: Milwaukee, WI

Ike Willis - Project/Object :: 01.03 :: Milwaukee
Frank Zappa is the only dead musician I can think of who has two tribute bands that have risen beyond the level of, well, cheesy tribute band. Sure, one of them (Zappa Plays Zappa) features his son Dweezil, and both have included various ex-Zappa band members at times. But, another big part of the respect these bands have garnered is in that they don't try to impersonate Frank or recreate the elaborate theatricality of his live shows. ZPZ goes so far as to project the image and sound of Frank himself for the band to play along with, and the result is a lovingly crafted, precisely rehearsed encomium. New York's Project/Object takes a different approach, putting more of the group's own spin on things. Either method should prove thrilling to fans of Frank's work, but I found P/O to be somewhat more in the spirit of the Zappa performance milieu - irreverent and full of the humor that may or may not belong in music.

First off, having Ike Willis and Ray White onstage singing the material (along with no-slouch-himself P/O mainstay André Cholmondeley) immediately elevates the performance well above cover band status. Although White's voice was a bit strained, he was able to pull through in most key instances, and the harmonizing between him and Willis evoked the essence of a Zappa show more poignantly than any guitar solo could. The camaraderie between the two veterans and their interplay with Cholmondeley and the rest of the group was natural and respectful, and their gesticulations and comical ad libbing made the whole room feel at ease. I'd seen White with ZPZ, and while his voice was in better shape then, the less formal nature of P/O allowed for a looser, more spirited performance. This type of genuine performance art, without flash or flamboyance, is virtually absent from modern music.

Project/Object :: 01.03 :: Milwaukee
The P/O lineup is constantly changing, and the current roster may still be finding its groove, to an extent. Each musician is quite an individual talent, but the rapport was not always fluid. Bassist David Johnsen is a real showman, but he doesn't seem to have developed much of a musical relationship with new drummer Jim Ruffi. The notion of a rhythm section was largely absent, partially due to the complex nature of the music, but even given that, Ruffi came off overly disjointed at times. Organist Eric Svalgard served as the glue for the band, pulling off several outstanding solos on Rhodes ("Cosmik Debris") and Moog ("Florentine Pogen"), inventively incorporating the Theremin throughout the night, and laying down a solid foundation when not in the spotlight.

Cholmondeley is an obvious Zappa disciple on guitar, and while it's not a fair comparison to make, Cholmondeley doesn't quite have the melodic creativity or ornery zest to pull off Frank-caliber extended solos. He was most successful in shorter bursts, particularly the end of "Any Downers," while longer excursions such as "Montana" and "RDNZL" got a bit tedious. He was also competing with Willis' more studied, bluesy lead work, which was top notch throughout, particularly on "Magic Fingers."

When it all came together, there were some truly transcendent numbers. "Peaches En Regalia" may be the most celebrated Zappa cover around, but P/O's version blew away any other I've heard, twisting the joyful number into some creepy dissonance between triumphant peaks. "Florentine Pogen" and "Andy" showcased the band's decidedly heavier take on Frank's originals and brilliant interplay between everybody. By the end of the second set, the band was fully greased, tearing up "Inca Roads" and the Adrian Belew dedication "Jones Crusher" with dizzying precision and power. It was a seat-of-pants night of music, an ongoing tribute that would surely make Frank proud.

Opening for P/O for the third straight show was Chicago's The Hue, a fitting primer for the intricacy of Zappa. The group epitomizes modern prog, but without any trace of the cheese found in Dream Theater or recent Porcupine Tree. Instantly hummable melodies cut through occasionally menacing riffage and Brian Gilmanov's impeccable drumming; the guy is an encyclopedia of fills as well as a steady powerhouse. Highlighted by epic centerpiece "Bipolar Pride," the set suggested arena-sized hugeness without the masturbatory ego.

Continue reading for more pics of Project/Object in Milwaukee...

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