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May 31, 2017

Rockin’ the region with Ike Willis

Rockin’ the region with Ike Willis

By Dave Hoffenberg and Rick Redington

If you’re free Wednesday, June 7, I highly recommend you go to the West Rutland Town Hall Theater to see an incredible show. For only $20, you get to see a legend in the business—and some local legends, as well. Ike Willis, singer and guitarist from the Frank Zappa Band, will be performing with We Used to Cut the Grass. Also performing are Rick Redington & The Luv and the Ithaca Bottom Boys (I.B.B.). If the weather permits, the I.B.B. will be playing outside on the Green at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.

We Used to Cut the Grass is an enigmatic experimental ensemble performing both original and adapted contemporary/classical music. The group — led by bassist, thereminist, hand sawist and composer Cody McCorry — most often features a large horn section and two drum sets, but no two performances are ever alike, with different instrumentation and new sonic intentions. The ensemble’s accomplishments include: recording the debut single “Woodpecker” using 100 percent solar power; composing and debuting a 45-minute experimental piece “How to Seduce a Cactus” in Asbury Park, N.J.; collaborating with the Vanguard Strings to release an arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s 1940 “Tango”; touring with Frank Zappa vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis; and performing at the New Jersey premiere of Thorsten Schütte’s Zappa documentary, “Eat That Question.”

For all things Zappa, I refer to Rick Redington, who is the foremost expert on the subject. He speaks very highly of Ike Willis and said, “Ike Willis is one of the most soulful singers I have heard and he can play the guitar like reen-toon-teen-toon-teen-toon-tee-nah-nee-nah-nee-nah-nee.”

Willis is the voice of Joe from “Joe’s Garage” and “Thing Fish” from Frank Zappa’s wonderful take on the world of Broadway, and is one of the late-great master’s longest running band mates appearing on over 30 of Zappa’s albums.

If you know Redington, you know his love of Zappa. He said that he has witnessed the immense power, intensity, absurdity, hilarity andover-the-top uber-musicianship of a Frank Zappa concert more than half a dozen times in his life. He discovered Zappa early and said, “It pretty much made everything else seem quite lackluster to me as a kid who graduated high school in 1982 in the heyday of spandex and mascara bands. Frank’s music was such a bright relief of reality for all my other outcast and freak friends. It made us feel like we were a part of another society or secret subculture. His sarcastic wit and intelligent rants on modern day society stay with me and all his fans to this day. ‘Joe’s Garage’ to good friends ‘Little Roach,’ ‘Mr. Ben’ and ‘The Dart’ was like an audio play/roller coaster of music, comedy and sexuality all rolled into one.”

If you know Zappa, then you know Willis, who was a regular member of Zappa’s studio and touring bands from 1978 until the last tour in 1988. Redington said of Willis, “The voice of Ike Willis hit me as a young man, who started studying voice and opera in college at Castleton like a ton of bricks. Listen to ‘Outside Now’ sometime and tell me what you think. It comes with my personal money-back guarantee! The first time I saw them play live — and not only heard Ike sing, but heard him rip on the guitar — I was forever a fan.”

Zappa passed away in 1993 and a few years later, Willis started Project Object which is the longest-running, alumni-based Zappa tribute in the world. Redington went to an early show of theirs and said,” I was taken to a Project Object show in Glens Falls by my friend and late bassist Curt to see Ike play at a small club over there. I was pretty much an emotional wreck halfway through the first number because I missed this music, and the man himself, and this was so beautiful for me to hear this madness again. I liked that Ike was also playing in a style that was his own, but no doubt harkened to Frank’s playing, as well. I did get a chance to thank him that night as Curt had seen him the year before, and he saw Curt’s ‘Huge Members’ t-shirt and said he would trade him one of his for one of ours. What? Yup, and he even held it up on stage, and in his kinda ‘Thing Fish’ voice he actually said our band name! Also, just about every friend I had back then who was into Zappa was imitating the ‘Thing Fish’ voice so this was immense for me.”

Redington’s last Zappa show was pretty memorable. He said, “Prior to the Project Object show, I saw Zappa at Memorial Auditorium [Burlington, Vt.] for the last time. Frank played a solo in ‘City of Tiny Lights’ that left blisters on my soul and made me fall back in my seat into the lap of a large native Vermonter like myself. I looked up at this guy and said ‘Holy cow, I’m really sorry!’ The guy says ‘No, man, I totally get it.’ That one left a beautiful mark on me that I am so thankful for. During that show a smaller framed woman with a ‘Thing Fish’ mask on ran up to the stage and Frank had her dancing around and later I actually met her and Willis at the local Jiffy Mart getting some supplies.”

This show could not be more special for Redington. He and his band are so honored to be sharing the same stage with Willis and We Used to Cut the Grass along with the Ithaca Bottom Boys for a couple of shows in June. Redington said, “I have to give this guy a big hug and thanks for helping keep this incredibly important music alive!”

Redington said that Zappa’s music is taught in great music conservatories around the world.  There’s a reason for this, he said, because it’s incredibly difficult to perform and also carries phrases, melodies and time signatures as well as improvisations that most other acts will never even come close to in performance. “Fans of this music are very often musicians who recognize this and are also themselves some of the most extra ordinary people I have ever met,” Redington said.

Willis knows from his experiences here with Zappa, as well as Project Object, that Vermont loves Zappa and it was his request for Redington to find a place to host a show up here. Redington said, “I have opened for and recorded with many legends in my time, both national and local, but I do have to say this one is hitting me hard and has me rehearsing my own band like crazy. We plan on playing as best we can at shows Tuesday the 6th in Ithaca, N.Y., after a show that Sunday in Albany with another legend, Melvin Seals, then here in West Rutland on Wednesday.”

Rick Redington & The Luv were recently signed by Kevin Black Presents (KBP) and they are ecstatic. This show is being put on by KBP who discovered them earlier this spring in Ithaca, N.Y., which has become their home away from home. It was there that they discovered the Ithaca Bottom Boys, and Redington is excited for them to come play in his hometown. Tickets are available at Be Music in Rutland and The Wild Fern in Stockbridge or at any of Redington’s shows between now and then. Redington said, “This amazing opportunity and event came to us very quickly so we need all the help we can get filling this beautiful old historic West Rutland Town Hall Theater with good people who love great music. It’s like Mary from The Bus says, ‘Music is the best!’”

Photo courtesy of Rick Redington
IKE WILLIS

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