The Frank Zappa fan is a curious beast. Not a mindless follower of trend or fashion, the true Frank-ophile is dedicated and committed to the man’s music, and has the much admired avant-garde rocker’s entire catalogue etched indelibly into the fabric of their cerebral cortex – every album track remembered note for note, and each key or tempo change obsessively assessed and filed.

Adelaide band, Lather, have been immersing themselves in the world of Zappa’s music for well over a decade now and have become one of the tightest musical units going around. For the true Zappa fan they are now the closest thing to seeing the maestro live that it is possible to experience.

To a casual Zappa listener, attending one of Lather’s finely honed live appearances must be like attending an old time revival meeting and witnessing the Gospel of FZ being delivered passionately to a tent full of fully converted, willingly enraptured, parishioners.

Many in attendance at this show were transported into ecstasy, conducting the players from their seats, arms aloft, anticipating and signalling every momentary ring of the finger bell, very honk of the bicycle hooter, every sudden drum fill. It would have been no surprise to see the infirm among us stand and loudly declare, ‘I’m cured!’

Crowd requests for obscure album cuts were frequent, but the band stayed true to their setlist throughout. Occasionally the band taunted the audience with challenges like, ‘A real Frank Zappa fan would know what the next song is…’, causing the most anally-retentive fans to compete with those sitting alongside them to claim superiority by being the first to recognise the tune.

Surprisingly, the band’s set was mainly chosen from the 1970’s era of the Zappa canon, with most of his earlier reputation-shaping albums totally ignored – with the sole exception of one song taken from 1969’s Uncle Meat album.

The band performed a mix of vocal and instrumental selections which provided plenty of scope for the solo spotlight to be shared amongst all eight supremely talented musicians on stage.

Led by guitarist Tim Hogan, who proved he really knows his way around a guitar and can shift tempo, approach and style in an instant without missing a beat, the rest of the band were never less than on the money also.

Zappa’s ‘lyrics’ must be a challenge for every vocalist who attempts to ‘sing’ them. They are invariably wordy, and difficult to make fit to the erratic melodies which the songs contain. Gerry Masi delivered a vocal performance that drew much admiration from the full house at the Osmond Street Function Centre as he sped through the word rich semi-spoken sections of songs like Andy, Dancin’ Fool, Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy and Cheepnis and then soaring opera-like with his powerful baritone one second, before switching to a comical falsetto the next.

Dave Saunders’ keyboard solos provided some tasty delights, whilst drummer Jarrad Payne, who can deftly mix noisy rock thunder and quiet jazzy syncopation within the boundary of a single song, proved he must be one of the best drummers on the local scene.

Jeremy Martin’s unobtrusive, but deceptively complex, bass lines negotiated their way through all of the sudden musical twists and turns this music is prone to making without missing a beat, and Ryan Simm was never shy to make an impact too, flavouring the music with his tasteful vibes.

The horn section were also outstanding.

Whilst it is hard to fault the playing of the ensemble, for me Zappa’s songs appeal to the head and not the heart at the best of times. They are showpieces for the virtuoso. They are ridden with in-jokes – which are often inane and adolescent in nature, and too often they can be frustrating for the listener. As soon as an appealing hot groove ignites, a counter rhythm, or a sudden key change arrives too soon to dampen it down again, or extinguish it completely.

I appreciated the quality of musicianship on show at this performance – it was faultless, uniformly excellent throughout. The Zappa aficionados in attendance were all rapt and fully satiated by show’s end. However, the night’s set did not touch either my heart or soul, perhaps that was because my brain was too distracted, engaged as it was in negotiating its way through the dense complexity of the music being played!

Rating: 4 stars

Absurdity Is The Only Reality – Lather Play The Music of Frank Zappa, was performed at the Osmond Terrace Function Centre on Thursday 18 March at 8:00pm.