The longhaired middle-aged white mostly male audience eagerly assembles around the stage. Though many contain their obvious glee by standing still and expressionless, as if about to spot a rare train, anticipation crackles. Soon, the somewhat older Grandmothers of Invention amble on, smile, and ease into non-hit Call Any Vegetable. You don’t have to be a manic Frank Zappa fan to see that his one-time sidemen have had extremely interesting lives, and know their way around their instruments. It’s this last point they seem most interested in exploring; bass solos, drum solos, flute, guitar, gong solos, it’s all here, with varying fidelity to actual Frank Zappa songs. Answering the eternal question we all want answered via a song called The Eternal Question, its chorus “What was Zappa really like? / Did he fly into a rage? / I bet he smoked dope all the time / And did he really shit on the stage?” is answered amiably by the song’s writer and band saxophonist Don Preston (“uh…no!”). After a set explores Zappa's ability to inject humour into jazz, we get his most pop moments and set high-points Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder and Peaches en Regalia by which time the audience are largely onside and the band seem delighted.
From a bandleader who celebrated his musicians’ creativity by giving them room to stretch out, we get a bandleader who channeled musicianship into several-minute songs exploding with ideas. “We are The Magic Band playing the music of Captain Beefheart!” the band helpfully shouts in unison, before jumping in the air and exploding into My Human Gets Me Blues, the first of many songs from game-changing album Trout Mask Replica. Lead by one-time-drummer Drumbo, the show highlights his incredible voice, musicianship and personality, and were it not for the utterly unique force of personality and songwriting genius of Captain Beefheart it would be at risk of becoming The Drumbo Show. The bluesy Low Yo Yo Stuff and Diddy Wah Diddy follow, but rather than play it safe the band go for, and hit, some of the most complex music ever to crack a Top 50 album chart. Music that seems even stranger coming from a bunch of sexagenarians in cargo pants and loose t-shirts.
While the collective lifetime drug intake of the audience would be enough to euthanize Japan, the band themselves are phenomenally sharp with only guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo’s smiling, sagging visage betraying any errant years, even as his fingers move like Errol Flynn undoing a blouse. Hot Head, Click Clack, Golden Birdies, Owed T’Alex and an almighty Steal Softly Thru Snow are only narrow highlights over a set full of jaw-dropping rhythmic shifts, stabbing guitar riffs and deep bluesy rasping vocals. It’s a privilege to witness such influential pioneers in 2014 and to hear these distant transmissions burn brightly.