Friday, April 1, 2011


Retro Music Hall
March 31

Young at heart: Preston, Brock, Estrada, Mangano and Garcia.

Was a group ever more appropriately named than the Grande Mothers? They take forever to get started, talk too much, feature long solos that allow everybody else in the band to lay back, and take so long to recover between songs that after some teasing from the audience last night, Napoleon Murphy Brock looked up from his water bottle and said, “Hey, this can be exhausting!”

Still, it’s hard to argue with the music they’re putting out, spirited and heartfelt covers of the early Zappa oeuvre. They know it as well as anyone. Keyboard wizard Don Preston and bass player Roy Estrada were members of the original Mothers of Invention in the ’60s. Singer, sax player and flutist Brock joined Zappa in ’73, and became a prominent front man in touring versions of the band over the next decade. Rounding out the current lineup are drummer and Zappa devotee Chris Garcia, and guitarist Robbie Mangano.

Their core repertoire doesn’t change much, drawing heavily from We’re Only in it For the Money, Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Roxy & Elsewhere, with forays into favorites like “Florentine Pogen” and “Peaches en Regalia.” Last night they even dove into “Debra Kadabra,” with Garcia providing the gravel-voiced lead.

Musically, the band can be uneven, pumping fresh life into note-perfect versions of some songs, then turning sour on others. They murdered “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” last night, and some of the doo-wop vocals fell a bit shy. But the purely instrumental covers were for the most part outstanding, and when they get warmed up, the Grande Mothers can cook. There are moments when you find yourself waiting for Frank to come in with one of his searing guitar lines...just like the old days.

And of all the Zappa bands on the circuit these days, this one best embodies the spirit of the music, the wild sense of anarchy and absurdity that characterized the early albums in particular. A familiar tune can suddenly segue into Preston, Estrada and Brock doing a vocal trio from outer space. Mangano played most of last night’s show with a chicken perched on his guitar neck, and for the “Chester’s gorillas” portion of “Florentine Pogen,” Brock did a very effective impersonation of a pulsating vagina. There was even a bit of audience participation, with the band bringing the hulking Zappo, Prague’s leading Zappaphile, on stage while they sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

The solos and instrumental covers provided the most substantive music of the evening, but predictably, familiar favorites like “Trouble Every Day,” “Peaches” and “Sofa” drew the most enthusiastic reactions from the predominantly older audience. For this reviewer, there’s always a surprise in the mix – a song that it’s hard to imagine reaching this part of the world during the Cold War, much less becoming a fan favorite. Last night it was a rousing rendition of “I Am the Slime,” which lit up the crowd big-time. At first blush, the appeal of a vicious swipe at America’s corporate consumer culture seems puzzling. But when you’re living under communism, there’s a familiar bite to lines like, “You will obey me while I lead you/And eat the garbage that I feed you/Until the day that we dont need you...”

Give credit to this band for being generous, too. By the end of the show, Brock had acknowledged and/or thanked everybody from God down to the local sound and light crew. It’s unlikely the Czechs knew what he was talking about when he said things like, “Let’s get down to it. Are you up for that?” But the lighting technician no doubt appreciated this compliment: “I can’t pronounce your name, but you’re the shit, dude.”

And the ultimate tribute was paid properly, with the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening coming in response to Brock yelling, “Let’s hear it for Frank Zappa!” As the band was leaving the stage, he offered a great parting shot: “Play this music for your children, so they know there’s an alternative.”

For more about the Grande Mothers:

And for all things Zappa:

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