The members of Furious Bongos, a tribute act to the late, great Frank Zappa, have some serious musical credentials. A self-proclaimed “freak of nature,” drummer Filip Fjellstrom can play just about anything, including a toilet seat. Keyboardist Kevin Bents toured with Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil Zappa and worked as Jewel’s musical director at the height of her career. Bassist and band leader Conrad St. Clair has worked with people like Mick Fleetwood and Yo Yo Ma, and singer Jenna Paulus has a Master's from Boston Conservatory.
Not to be outdone, percussionist Zachary Bowers has a Master's from Vanderbilt and has played with the Nashville Symphony.
St. Clair put the band together back in 2017 in Madison, WI, and it played its first gig in 2018.
“I was working a lot with a violinist, and we had worked together in an original project,” says St. Clair via phone from his home outside of Washington D.C., where he was rehearsing with the Furious Bongos for a tour that brings it to Music Box Supper Club on Tuesday, April 12. “We were both Zappa fans. We just started talking about how it would be fun to put together a Zappa project with some of the musicians we knew in Madison. We thought it could be fun. I asked [singer] Lo Marie if she wanted to do it, and she said she did. It just fell together. Toward the end of 2018, I moved to the East Coast. With that, there was a shift in how we approached things. If we were spread out across the country, the only way to make it work was to tour. It had to be set up like Frank [Zappa]’s tours. He brought everyone together for exhausting rehearsals that last for two months, and then he hit the road. I don’t have Frank’s budget, so we fly everyone in, and I have a big house, and we have a week’s worth of rehearsals.”
In the wake of Zappa’s death nearly 20 years ago, various tribute acts involving people who once played with him have emerged. St. Clair says the Bongos have charted their own course and don’t aim to produce note-for-note duplications of Zappa’s tunes.
Rather, they let the personalities of the individual musicians shine.
“One of the things that I appreciate most about Frank [Zappa] is that he hired musicians who had a unique voice,” says St. Clair. “Yes, there were things you had to do on the record but the point of him hiring someone like [guitarist] Steve Vai was to have their voice as a tool in his tool kit. There are certain things you have to learn note for note, but the spaces in between are songs you have to make your own. We’re not trying to copy Zappa. We don’t play ‘Inca Roads’ note-for-note. That misses the point. For Frank, it was about growing and changing and finding new things.”
St. Clair says that one of the most important aspects of Zappa’s legacy is the desire to have fun on stage.
“[Singers] Ray White and Ike Willis’s job during some of those shows was to make Frank laugh,” he says. “If you did that, it’s a good night. It’s [about] that organic letting things grow and evolve and not just looking nostalgically at the albums.”
“There has hardly been a show that I’ve made it through without laughing at something on stage,” says Marie.
At the start, the band focused on material from the late '80s.
“I love the ’88 band and those arrangements,” St. Clair says. “We started off with the standard songs you would have to play like ‘Inca Roads,’ ‘The Black Page’ and ‘Uncle Remus’ and a few quirky fun things. I was studying with Arthur Barrow, Frank’s bassist and rehearsal director. He told us, ‘Don’t try to tackle all the hard stuff at once. Learn an easy one and then a hard one.’”
Thanks to the pandemic, the band’s repertoire hasn’t evolved as much as we would have liked but the group has still managed to add a handful of songs to the show.
The group has also added some singers.
“The songs we have added tend to be vocal heavy and feature some prominent vocal harmonies, which is awesome," says Marie.
Zappa’s music is now decades old but still endures. St. Clair has a theory as to why.
“It’s just good,” says St. Clair. “I’ve enjoyed the challenge of playing it and there is so much to learn from him as a band leader and all these aspects of his personality and career are amazing. I’m not a huge Zappa geek. I don’t have that depth of knowledge. I guarantee there are albums I’ve never heard. But there’s something about the quality and depth, and you just have to be amazed by the quantity of stuff that came out. And it’s all consistently really good.”
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]