LET’S BE FRANK: the Blind Tiger gets Ugly

by Ryan Snyder

LET’S BE FRANK: the Blind Tiger gets Ugly’ 

There are very few instances that come to mind where it is socially acceptable to publicly ask the question “Why does it hurt when I pee?” While “Loveline” with Adam Carrola and Dr. Drew Pinsky is still alive in radio syndication, it’s not nearly the same widely recognized forum for topics to make you squirm in your seat as it was in its MTV heyday. The great Frank Zappa, however, also posed this very question in the narrative of his classic Joe’s Garage and Thursday night at the Blind Tiger, the titular voice of that very album made a special appearance alongside one of the finest Zappa tribute acts today. Celebrated guitarist Ike Willis took over lead vocals and guitar for the Detroit-based act Ugly Radio Rebellion ( uglyradiorebellion) in what has been a hotly contested endeavor as of late. The Frank Zappa tribute-band industry, that is, thanks in large part to Frank’s widow Gail. It took a little bit of legal wrangling on part of the Blind Tiger to ensure that the band could safely perform, but more of those sordid details later. Surely, I thought, the presence of Willis on the bill for the band’s 100 th performance would bring Zappa fans crawling out of the woodwork in swarms, but the thin crowd in attendance has led me to produce a couple of theories in explanation: First, it’s entirely possible that the seasonal timing had a lot to do with the somewhat sparse audience. Everyone’s busy this time of year, obviously. The other theory is that there just aren’t a whole lot of Zappa fans floating around these days. The man made some strange, silly music that just doesn’t lend itself to broad acceptance. That’s not to say what he made isn’t wonderful in its own weird way, however, because in my opinion it is. Zappa has always been a bit of a musician’s musician and judging by the crowd at the URR show, that much is very true. Several local players floated into the venue at various points in the show, taking their place among the hardcore fans randomly yelling out the initial question posed in this article. “I ask myself that same question every morning,” Willis replied before inevitably indulging the repeated request. Of course, he prefaced the song with a line normally delivered by Zappa himself.

“Shortly afterhis liaison with the taco-stand lady, Joe makes a horrible discovery…,”Willis stated in a nod to the narrative voice prevalent on Joe’s Garage. Thoughtheir delivery wasn’t quite as succinct as that of Zappa (few are),Willis and the band’s playing was still fantastic. They get a passconsidering one member (guitarist Scott Schroen) lives in Georgia and hadn’t practiced with the others in weeks, however. Thoughthere still are no mediocre tribute acts in his countenance; it’ssimply impossible to perform such complicated works without a highdegree of proficiency. Willis’ little finger was firmly wrapped aroundthe whammy bar and drummer Layla Hall was particularly wicked in hercraft, especially considering her minute stature. At around five feettall and barely 100 lbs. (most in her waist-length dreadlocks), Hallmashed the skins with the violent precision of a tiny toronado. Zappa’scompositions are known for their sweeping rhythmic rolls and fills andshe nailed them all while providing operatic backing vocals on songslike “Teenage Prostitute.” She even threw in the occasional stick twirland point to the crowd for good measure. “And then, later thatsame evening,” Willis interjected between just about every other song,URR broke out just about every classic that the crowd shouted for.“Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy,” “Catholic Girls,” “My Guitar Wants to KillYour Mama”, “Cosmik Debris” and “Zomby Woof” all found their way intothe band’s two sets. But it all came very close to not happening, asseems to be the case with most Zappa tribute bands (save for the“official” act of son Dweezil, Zappa Plays Zappa). Though mostvenues, the Blind Tiger included, pay fees to the American Society ofComposers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Zappa’s widow Gailpersistently threatens legal action to both the performers of theestate’s copyrighted work and the venues who book them. Her contentionis that the license granted by the fees paid to ASCAP only applies tonondramatic work, whereas storytelling albums such as Joe’s Garage aredramatic in nature. In any event, the legal obstruction flies directlyin the face of Frank Zappa’s wish for others to “play my music.” TheBlind Tiger may have proved that the threats are a little more hollowthan they are being represented, however. Management statedthat they simply notified ASCAP that they were booking the band. Still,URR are bracing for more of the same down the road. “We could be fined$750 for every song we play for copyright infringement,” said Schroen.“I’m looking forward to the day when this gets me led off in handcuffs.”

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Frankly Zappa: Ike Willis throws down. (photo by Ryan Snyder)