...we came in?

Following the Arf Society’s recent triumph in its legal battles with the ZFT, the t-shirt for this year’s festival had an unmistakable image of FZ’s face, bearing the words ‘Play my music’. A bold move indeed, but also a little mystifying given that the festival that has been luring Zappa fans the world over for 23 successive years has been playing less and less of his music in recent times. And this time (if you include the Heavy Guitar Day - and why wouldn’t you?) probably erred on the side of more ‘other music’. A shame, and I fear that instead of attracting more attendees, the dilution of a clear wampeter will have the reverse effect. Sure, you’ll get a bunch who want to see the likes of Gong and Magma. But for one year only. The regulars are there to hear Frank’s music. End of.

On Heavy Guitar Day, the camping area was near deserted. A number of people commented to me that they haven’t been to see Alice Cooper on recent tours when he’s played just down the road from them, so why would they stay an extra day to see him in Germany. Well, my answer to that is that if you’re already in the middle of nowhere and he’s dropping by, why the hell not? Have you ever heard anyone say he didn’t put on a good show? Plus it would be cheaper than seeing him in a big indoor arena - especially if you’re an Arf Society member. And there’s another thing: I was surprised by how many regular attendees don’t actually show their appreciation for the Society via their wallets. I realise we’re in the midst of a recession, but come on! It costs no more than a good night out to show your support for a whole year. And, by the way, Alice’s show was gobsmackingly awesome. He changed his shirt for practically every song, and donned the afore-mentioned ‘play my music’ one during School’s Out. I’ve long been a fan (I bought Killer before School’s Out was even released, and at one time in the 70s, the Alice Cooper group seriously challenged the mighty Zep as the teenage Greenaway’s number one band), and it was no surprise that his set focussed on the early years (Is It My Body, I’m Eighteen, Under My Wheels, Billion Dollar Babies, No More Mister Nice Guy, I Love The Dead, Muscle Of Love, Only Women Bleed) – though I’ll Bite Your Face Off and a couple of tracks from the Brutal Planet album were slipped flawlessly in. From the opening Black Widow to the closing Elected, he and his band (including the talented lovely, Orianthi, on guitar) entertained us. Alice sported an FZ tache and imperial for Halo Of Flies, before getting chased by a 10 foot Frankenstein’s monster and being executed. He ended by saying, “If Frank were here, he’d say ‘I don’t get it’!”, which made me chuckle.


Alice pays his respects
(more pictures on Facebook)

We spent the first few days of the festival looking up in awe at the huge stage that was still being readied, primarily for Alice. So the action initially took place on the new Mystery Stage, which worked pretty well. Bigger than the old truck stage, but still nice and intimate. First up was Ben Watson, doing his Stanshall-ish word-play in tribute to Beefheart, and losing many of the punters with some very British references. The first band was FiftyII50, who needed to rehearse a little more if they wanted to do justice to their mashing-up of Frank. Maybe this was their rehearsal? Ya Hozna, who didn’t play at my very first Zappanale 10 years ago, or even at Zappanale #16 (that was the Yahozna Band from the Czech Republic; these guys are from Slovenia), and the Yellow Snow Crystals (undeniably here last year) were definitely more like it – though, having had very little sleep since rising for work at 4:30 a.m. the previous day before making my way out to BD, this old Idiot was starting to wilt. Consequently, I listened to the rest of the bands from the comfort (?) of Uncle Ian’s tent right up near the field where the bales of hay looked like chodes, feeling very sorry for myself. A real shame as I so wanted to see former Grandmother Sandro Oliva (with our very good pal Tim Op het Broek adding Pachuco impersonations) again. It sounded like great fun, and I can always console myself by listening to Sandro’s Beer & Sausages official live in Rome bootleg whenever I want (it’s a good one – check it out).

So, up and showered and feeling refreshed, the second day saw me and the gang walking into Zappa Town (this turned out to be our most athletic Zappanale ever as we made this trip every day, only using Molli the once to return: J-Roc and me used beer from Lidl to power us back the other times). On this first schlepp into civilisation we met Jimmy Carl Black’s widow, Moni, and her partner Julian, who are working hard to get the first part of Jim’s memoirs (A Mother’s Tale) published by what would have been his 75th birthday. Having checked out the Yellow Snow Exhibition, we unfortunately had to miss the presentation about JCB’s book as we wanted to get back to the Mystery Stage for Co de Kloet’s The Supplement Tape Live. And this proved to be a high spot, most certainly. Using audio snippets of interviews Co conducted with Frank, Kent Nagano, Mike Keneally and Flo & Eddie to illustrate his presentation, it was in essence like watching a radio show. We heard Frank talk about the infamous toilet poster, why Punky’s Whips got removed from Zappa In New York, his views on censorship, and what happened to the 1988 band (for more on that, I hear there’s a good book out...). We learned a few things too: Frank wanted to record another (other than Mary Lou) song by Obie Jessie, called Shuffle In The Gravel; a quote from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes had to be excised from the Baby Snakes movie due to copyright complications; and that Frank personally insisted CdK mix his band’s live radio broadcast from Rotterdam in 1980 (which provided an excuse to play Frank’s solo from Easy Meat from that show). A special guest was then introduced: he of the coolest gait in the velodrome, Gary Lucas. Performing King Kong solo, he then nattered a bit about Frank. But really it was just an excuse to big-up his imminent tribute to Jeff Buckley at the Paradiso. And why not? The next guest had a whole lot more to say: the very recently widowed George Duke (no mention was made of his bereavement, but many of us knew and empathised and applauded his bravery). Clearly very close to Co, he was relaxed, jokey and happy to chat. Co played two very different renditions of the song he co-wrote with Frank (Uncle Remus): a solo piano version from 2000, and a more recent one with Napoleon Murphy Brock and the Metropole Orkest. Afterwards, he willingly signed anything and everything thrust in front of him. Kudos, George!

Throughout all of the above - at the back of the stage - sat the dapper Robert Martin. Co did acknowledge him, but it was most curious that he didn’t actually involve him.

Okay, finally someone’s about to play on the Main Stage. Shame it was so windy, as Fried Dähn And The Yellow String Quartet’s set was badly disturbed by the clanging of unsecured metal eyelets against the stage scaffolding, making every song seem like Questi Cazzi Di Piccione. A great shame, but this gentle and visually uninteresting set was surely custom-made for the smaller stage? Yes, I know Fried Dähn was a member of Ensemble Modern. But. They played works by Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Haydn and, of course, FZ (including, surprisingly, Transylvania Boogie). But would’ve been better without the tinie timpani.

Back to the Mystery Stage and the five-piece Gargantua from Poland, with a very stern but striking lady violinist upfront. Their rock-fusion-classical-iwanna-avant-garden set included a more Stravinsky (a snatch from The Rite Of Spring) and a bit of Bartók. But the keyboard player (and band leader?)’s technical difficulties midway through badly disrupted the flow of their set, and failed to stop my mind (and feet) from wandering. So, slowly back to the Main Stage where we were treated to the spectacle that is Triggerfinger. Looking like the grandfather’s of Muse (the lead guitarist/singer was a cross between Wayne Coyne and Joe Bonamassa, with a penchant for whipping his gray comb-over back and forth) these pub-rockers are apparently very popular in their native Belgium. So now I’m wanting something to blow me away, and not really expecting it to happen until a little later. Unusually, I hadn’t studied the festival bill as thoroughly as hitherto, and thus knew nothing about Just Another Band. We find out they’re a bunch of young guys from the Queen of the Midlands. Why the hell didn’t I know about this?! They played just one piece – Billy The Mountain. Although it wasn’t note perfect, their general spirit and derring-do (and the quote from the Bonzo’s Canyons Of Your Mind) impressed me greatly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that watching them was every bit as enjoyable as seeing ZPZ. Beaming faces abounded, so they did.

And on, to the day’s main event: the reunion of George Duke with Jean-Luc Ponty. The Brothers Of Invention were introduced by Co de Kloet and principally played Mothers’ material (King Kong, The Idiot Bastard Son, Cosmik Debris-Inca Roads-Uncle Remus medley, Twenty Small Cigars, Fifty-Fifty), sprinkled with some hits of their own (560 SL, Enigmatic Ocean, Imaginary Voyage, Cosmic Messenger, Brazilian Love Affair with Echidna ending). What more do I need to say? They were backed by J-LP’s band, featuring the astonishing bassist I raved about two years ago (Guy Nsangué Akwa), and fully lived up to expectations. The brothers prim looked so happy to be playing together again. And a happy Robert Martin sat at the side of the stage enthralled throughout.


Introducing Amaretto Mick...
(courtesy of Amaretto Mick Zeuner)

Still three more days to go? Fuck my old boots. Friday’s look-forward-to band was without a doubt Fast ‘N Bulbous (playing the music of Captain Beefheart, natch) featuring Gary Lucas (on the guitar, inserting a bit of Harry Lime into Big Joan), Phillip Johnston (alto sax, arrangements, conducting), and Joe Fiedler (from the Ed Palermo Big Band) on trombone. I’ve seen these guys play before, and have both of their great, great albums. For me, this is the greatest way to really appreciate the subtleties of Van Vliet’s compositional abilities. It gives me the horn. That, and the word ‘and’. But before them ‘twas Humble Grumble with Mixolydian mode guitar licks a-go-go, some solo Lucas, AND...ooh, sorry...the horn heavy Dead Dino Storage. The latter hail from Norway and obviously go berserk for berries. They had Robert Martin as their very special guest, who sang and played sax, keyboards and French horn. That was more like it: more Bobby.

Fast forward to The Mother Hips, and some old guy on the bass. Ha! Many were unsure what to expect, but the Hips’ blend of folk.alt.guitar rock went across real swell, helped much by the presence of the strutting Scott Thunes (for it was he – he’s actually two years younger than me, so not at all old really) and a couple of guest appearances from Robert Martin’s horn. Front man Tim Bluhm was a mighty presence too. AMZ tells me they quoted from Gov’t Mule’s I’m A Ram at one point, but otherwise it was all original material. I think.

It was starting to rain right about now, my funk soul brothers. But I had my beer mac on and decided to brave it out to watch Magma. They’ve been around forever and I know their fans are, er, fanatical. Never understood all this Kobaïan business (give me San Lorenzan any day), but no matter. I liked what I heard very much. Like last year’s Plastic People Of The Universe, they have been bolstered by some young uns, but good old Christian Vander’s still bashing away at the back, and I definitely should investigate them further. Belatedly. A very nice way to end Day Three.

What day is this? Saturday, right. So the last day of Zappanale #23? Gary Lucas should’ve presented his Beefheart Symposium first, having had it postponed from Wednesday. But for reasons unknown, he was asked to play his solo set again. Fair enough (though now I wish I’d trekked up to Liverpool last January to see the Beefheart thing there...stupidsexyflanders...grrrrr). MagNiFZent were a guitar duo playing Zappa, adequately. Boldly attempting requests that they were unsure they could perform, their set really lifted off when the rain started...suddenly we were all crammed together up on stage having a grand old singsong. This was another of those unexpected highlights/moments that always make attending the festival such a joy. We are the real Zappa family, trust me.

Earlier, Amaretto Mick was fretting about the fact that Jerry Outlaw had requested he get up on stage to introduce his band, the mighty Bogus Pomp. Amaretto even asked if I’d dep for him, but I said that he was the one who had been asked, and what an honour that was. I still wasn’t sure he’d do it but, bugger me, he did. To cries of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” from J-Roc and me, the band swaggered on and proceeded to play what is the best Zappa set I’ve seen in ages – and that includes ZPZ in Brighton last year. With cello, percussion, an alum (Robert Martin, guesting on French horn and keys during Grand Wazoo), oodles of charisma and a little bit of pickle...that’s what I like, Mick. They segued smoothly from one instrumental section to the next (Rollo...Fifty-Fifty...their Cleveland and Absolutely Free medleys...G-Spot...T'Merhsi...Echidna...woo-hoo!), leaving no time for the audience to catch their breath. Like at Zappanale #16, they was awesome. Ending with an epic Yo’ Mama, I was all of a tither, pumping the Outlaw’s hand backstage. And it was still early doors.


Jerry and friend
(courtesy of Amaretto Mick Zeuner)

Jazzprojekt Hundehagen seem to have plateaued a few festivals ago, but I’ll be happy to check them out again next year. Another returning band were up next: Dr Dark. And what a bunch of characters they are. Offstage, an’ all. The manic wit of Stephen Chillemi and the dry humour of Joseph Nolan all comes across in their live performance. They played that frenzied jaggedy guitar weaving Beefheart stuff (Frying Pan, The Past Sure Is Tense, Ice Cream For Crow, Big Eyed Beans), and were further fired by the presence of Gary Lucas on a whole bunch of things. Bill Saunders carries off the role of the Captain with great aplomb. All in all, a very fine tribute to the man. And that was pretty much it for me. That day. And what a night.

So, back to the beginning again: Heavy Guitar Day. Rostock lads Iron Horses kicked things off singing songs about black leather and steam trains on the smaller stage, before Jerry Outlaw And Friends played a fusion-heavy blinder on the big one. Featuring great picks from Jeff Beck’s repertoire (Led Boots, Blast From The East, Big Block, and one of the finest compositions from the last 15 years, Nadia – nice one, Nitin, though Jeff’s interpretation live at Ronnie’s edges it for me) and a couple from the Mahavishnu Orchestra (Cosmic Strut and Miles Beyond), this was cool stuff. Add to that some of their own pieces, FZ’s Clownz On Velvet and Marque-son's Chicken , and a bad-ass 21st Century Schizoid Man with David Pate’s sax replacing the dulcet tones of Greg Lake, and Bogus Pomp – sorry, Jerry & Co – slayed us two days on the trot. Afterwards, the legendary Uli Jon Roth captured the spirit of Jimi, before the stage was set for Alice.

Isn't this where...


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