In this business, having to deliver damning criticism of people with whom you’re personally acquainted is never easy.
Unfortunately, in the case of Mike Hyder, leader of Oxfordshire psych-rockers The Treat, it’s both necessary and justified – and despite having known him since 2002 (when, in my capacity as assistant promoter of Camden Underworld, I found myself repeatedly pestered by him for support slots) I’m going to have to lay my cards quite neatly on the table and announce that while he’s a good songwriter and talented guitarist (in much the same way as the bloke in the psychedelic trousers is pretty nifty on flute) he really should think about getting a better singer in. There, I’ve said it. And you know what, somebody had to – not least of all because, should they ever choose to employ a proper frontperson, the Treat many finally blossom – after nearly 20 years – into the band they’re capable of being. Not, of course, that anyone ever pays any bloody attention to me and my ideas….
The Grandmothers Of Invention, by comparison, have no such problems: having existed for between 40 and 50 years both in their own right and as members of Frank Zappa’s beyond-legendary Mothers Of Invention, keyboardist/vocalist Don Preston (a sprightly 85) saxist/vocalist Bunk Gardner (a youthful 84) and vibraphonist/synth twiddler Ed Mann (at 60-something, the comparative baby of the outfit alongside ‘token’ non-Zappa-related drummer Chris Garcia) already know they’re great. To say that their musicianship still trounces, even at their combined ages, all competition would be an understatement – although curiously given their origins, they’ve elected to perform this date (and, I’m presuming, the entirety of this farewell tour) without a guitarist of any kind. Then again, the great FZ can never be replaced – and in any case, with a quartet of this calibre, what would be the point in trying?
Going by what’s since been posted on the “setlist.fm” site, the preceding night’s London gig bore little or no relation whatsoever to tonight’s performance: hence, though we’re still treated to the same delightful Reuben And The Jets-based intro (sparkly jackets intact) the ensuing Montana, contrasting wildly with the more commercially-inclined Banned From Utopia version, comes as a major surprise to anyone who’s attended any of the previous shows. As one might expect from octogenarians, Preston and Gardner’s vocals are a little shaky, but they still kick the arses of many a younger pretender: in addition, the keyboardist’s dazzling fingerwork, as best exemplified by the extended widdly mid-section of Suzy Creamcheese, remains as deft as ever, while the saxophonist, with his raspy tenor tone and urgent honking, repeatedly calls to mind the funkier, late-period fusion era of free-form pioneer Albert Ayler.
By contrast, his gentle fluting (as heard on several downtempo sections) is closer to the more pastoral elements of Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef: indeed, rather than any outward recourse (with the possible exception of the closing Brown Shoes Don’t Make It) to the early lineups’ more psychedelically-inclined works (a direction in which I had initially assumed tonight’s show would lean) the Grandmothers’ remit seems instead to be a far jazzier one in general. Of course, given the individual back catalogues of the players involved (not to mention the enforced retirement of Roy Estrada due to certain ‘unpleasant’ former misdeeds) this is perhaps inevitable – but even by those standards, they manage to distend and extend several (primarily instrumental) selections from Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Uncle Meat and Chunga’s Revenge to the point of near- unrecognizability, and launch into at least two fresh improvisations not written by Zappa because, in Preston’s own words, “sometimes, you just gotta play what you fuckin’ wanna”.
Equally, an extended stand-up comedy routine between the band’s elder statesmen about masturbation, yoga, marijuana and Donald Trump tries more than a few patiences (especially as they could have slotted another song in there with consummate ease) and as we veer towards mid-set, I’m far from the only one looking mildly confused. However, what we must remember is that were Frank still here, he’d probably adopt exactly the same approach (albeit in a much larger venue) – and by that yardstick, it all makes perfect sense. In short, conventionality was never the Mothers’ watchword – and the Grandmothers, in keeping with that ethos, will be buggered if they’re going to end their career any differently. For much the same reason, Evelyn, A Modified Dog – on the surface, a bizarre choice considering its status as one of the great composer’s more ‘throwaway’ efforts – flourishes far better in its live setting than it did on record, and yet again, maybe that’s exactly as he would have wished.
Though I’d still sever a limb to see Ruth Underwood return to live action, there’s no denying that Mann’s tone-twisting, pitch-bending vibraphonics really are quite spectacular: indeed, when he absents himself for Gardner’s extended solo spot, thus reducing the group to a trio, he’s sorely missed, and by not allowing him to include more selections from his own time with Zappa (1977-89) the combo miss a potentially fine trick. They also disappointingly vacate the stage at the way too early hour of 10 30, evidently believing said time to be the curfew rather than the customary 11pm: either Preston and Gardner don’t hear the audience repeatedly yell this, can’t read their timesheets properly or are (heaven forfend) going a bit gaga in their dotage, hence their impending retirement, but either way, it means no encore (for which the potential possibilities- King Kong, Help I’m A Rock, Call Any Vegetable, Peaches En Regalia, Sharleena – were immense) and a room full of miffed punters. Just when they were really cooking as well – although if it were left to me, I’d have had them play another week straight (something not perhaps advisable for gentlemen of mature years) so maybe they made the right choice after all…
Sadly, I rather foolishly respond in kind with my very own ‘lost opportunity’: being short on funds, and knowing my next hourly bus leaves in eight minutes, I elect to swiftly slip off outta there, thus missing the post-gig/merch-table hangout and effectively robbing myself of (probably) my sole chance to meet Preston and Gardner. And, naturally, by the time I start regretting this decision, I’m too far away to turn back. Drat and buggeration. None of this, though, detracts from the quality of what I’ve just witnessed: if anything, it only makes me appreciate more my brief encounter with three of America’s most challenging experimentalists, not in ‘that London’ but here in the foggy Black Country, before they take their final bow. As for whether it’ll transpire to be my ‘gig of the year’, it’s early days yet- but for all its faults, it’s still the most mind-blowing experience I’ve undergone thus far in 2018, and frankly, I’m having difficulty imagining what could possibly top it.