Jack DeJohnette, Project/Object, William Bell and Johnny Winter
The band went right back to "Trouble Every Day" from 1966, although updating its lyrics with sly references to current issues. "City Of Tiny Lites" and "Disco Boy" represented the pure distillation of perverted pop, and then White threw the band into a sequence that reproduced most of side two from 1980's You Are What You Is, creating a scathing Broadway mini-opera that peaked with "Charlie's Enormous Mouth."
From "Peaches En Regalia" to "Tinsel Town Rebellion," the range was broad. Instrumental extension to pop compression. Cholmondeley adopted a relatively modest approach, not choosing to take too many extended guitar breaks, and leaving several openings for White's bluiesier soloing. The latter's shining passage arrived (both vocally and on guitar) during the escalating "Outside Now," lifted from the Joe's Garage trilogy. This was an ascendant stretch among the many that occurred during the evening's lengthy but continually gripping pair of sets.
David Johnsen's fuzz bass solo deserves special mention and was probably the most spiritually connected to Zappa's own razoring vortex of abrasiveness. Keyboardist Eric Svalgard came across as a demented research scientist, dedicated to coaxing out new variants of 1970s cosmic debris. Then, the young violinist Katie Jacoby injected several numbers with even greater vigor, slashing away with rhythmic precision, her hard attack not interfering with a virtuoso negotiation of Zappa's themes. The second set featured Ed Palermo on alto saxophone, bringing along a fruity funkiness to the tunes that are already in his bloodstream. Palermo too has been devoting his big band life to the Zappa oeuvre.
Most of all, though, it was a rapturous experience to hear Willis and White as a united front line performing the material as if they'd only just stepped off the Zappa road bus. Project/Object have honed all the old moves, but the musicians are also committed to making this music relevant to the present, delivering the often complicated arrangements with complete confidence, crazed abandonment and no visible scores. Avant-soul, squealing jazz-rock, new music pomp, dirty blues, electronic collage and disco castratothey've mastered all of Zappa's obsessions.
This was almost too much of a good time, but the evening had already opened at 7 p.m. with a pointed set by Astrograss, an old-fashioned Brooklyn acoustic combo in the classic Ralph Stanley configuration that dedicating themselves (believe it) to bluegrass stylings of Zappa songs. A doo wopped classic such as "Sharleena" offers an effortless stylistic sidestep, but when they sprinted through "Stick It Out," with panting robo-sex vocals joining in with the Bill Monroe-ed harmonies, it all sounded genuinely subversive, not to mention deeply grin-spreading.
Johnny Winter/William Bell
B.B. King Blues Club
January 11, 2010
Bluesman Johnny Winter was playing a January mini-residency on Mondays at B.B. King's, but this gig was clearly the best on offer due to its remarkably juicy inclusion of soul singer William Bell as the opening act. He beams out a youthful energy, even though reality has him down as a 70-year-old man. Principally known as a major figure on the Stax label, Bell offered his most well-known hit shockingly early in the set to a crowd that didn't seem to fully appreciate its significance, chatting as they were throughout "Private Number." This was a 1968 duet with Judy Clay, but on this night Bell was delivering a solo vocal version, flanked by The Uptown Horns. Bell's other prime achievement was co-writing "Born Under A Bad Sign" with Booker T, so this inevitably provided another set peak.
Johnny Winter might appear physically frail nowadays, shuffling over to his chair, where he remained for the duration, but the sound he makes is still crackling with vitality, both in terms of singing and guitar playing. Some of Winter's selections possess a rocky individuality, but he seems to be increasingly probing the old songbook, whether for blues or rock'n'roll oldies.
There were a pair of Freddie King numbers, followed by "Bony Moronie" (Larry Williams), "Red House" (Jimi Hendrix) and "It's All Over Now" (The Womacks). Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" turned up as one of the encores, as the NYC harp-blower Jon Paris took a break from his freebie set at Lucille's Bar next door. Whichever song is being tackled, it's infused with Winter's screaming tone, and just about the only negative point to make is that the band rarely lets up, the density is constant and the sound doesn't allow much space for thought. Even so, the smoldering doesn't cease.