U tter the words “jam band” in front of this writer and prepare for eye rolls. Too many times he’s been promised a transcendent musical experience, only to be stuck listening to tired hooks, unmoored grooves and long, aimlessly wandering solo sections, any given song just barely distinguishable from the last, performed by musicians who are way too into it.
I want a jam band made of players who’ve mastered their instruments. Who can read each other like large-print books and escalate their jams to unexpected places. Whose solos are both sharp and unsheathed, both controlled and rip-roaring. Who know with finely honed instincts when a jam section has peaked. And who deliver to audiences the singular pleasure of blasting from that improvised apex into a tight, straight-ahead breakdown before heading back into the main song structure.
Where’s that jam band?
Pacific Standard Tavern, that’s where. The when is the next four Tuesdays in June, tonight included, during a residency that began last Tuesday, meant to prep for a big festival date in Germany. The what is The Z3, a Frank Zappa tribute band that pulls with admiration from the Zappa repertoire but, like the man himself, is unafraid to deviate.
As guitarist and lead singer Tim Palmieri puts it, “We always start with the original song, learning it as is,” but then “we figure out what we can get away with to make it our own… We’ll start messing with tempos and hits”—plus style (considerably funkier than the original) and, by necessity, instrumentation. With four players handling songs often meant to be performed by many more than that, “we just don’t have enough hands” to do everything.
They can try, though. Keyboardist Beau Sasser handles bass with his left hand and melody with his right, using four tiers of keys including a Hammond organ while occasionally singing backup. Ed Mann, who actually performed with Zappa from 1977 to 1988 and is a newer addition to what started as a trio, mans mallets and electronics, also with multiple tiers to his rig. Bill Carbone on drums is doing what all kit drummers do, though not often as well: multi-tasking with all four limbs. Carbone also backup-sings, and between songs might take over stage patter duties from Palmieri.
Patter always comes more easily when a band’s non-verbal stage presence is casting its own spell over the crowd. Last Tuesday night, bathed in psychedelic projections and active stage lights, Palmieri would sometimes swing his body and sunburst-finish Fender in smooth arcs, often while acing rather technical riffs—which I guess is something you come to be able to do after spending 32 of your 36 years playing the guitar. Perhaps the most burdened man on stage was Sasser, pulling double-duty and more for most of the night, but by the end of the second set even he couldn’t contain himself, big grin flashing as he stood up and bounced around, then cried out to his bandmates during a big organ/synth solo. Who knows what he said, but it was exciting to witness.
Palmieri says one of the goals behind The Z3 is to make Zappa’s music more relevant to a generation of music listeners that by and large doesn’t know the man. For one thing, that means making the music danceable in a modern context, and judging by the reaction of the mixed crowd of 20ish, then 30ish, then 40ish curious people who filled a respectable chunk of Pacific Standard’s open layout last Tuesday, the mission’s been accomplished. A good contingent of the crowd was dancing pretty much right from the start. As for Palmieri, “I have to really be moved to get my dance on, and this band does it for me,” he says with a laugh.
And as for this writer, let’s just say it’s good, but also not good, when your hands are trying to hold a camera steady, but your knees won’t stop bobbing.
The Z3 featuring Ed Mann
in residency at the Pacific Standard Tavern – 212 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Tuesdays in June at 9:30 p.m., with special guests
21+ | $7 June 2 & 9, $10 June 16, 23 and 30
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.