The Furious Bongos: A Tribute to Frank Zappa

The Furious Bongos: A Tribute to Frank Zappa

Based in Madison, WI, The Furious Bongos are a Frank Zappa tribute band who are musically accomplished enough to take on his music, but also understand Frank was a fantastic entertainer with a wickedly satirical edge.

However people describe Zappa, safe or vanilla aren't usually first in mind. The Furious Bongos appreciate the dirt under his fingernails, and they don't shy away from taking risks and putting on a great show. As Frank might have said, there's some hair on this biscuit.

When bassist/arranger Conrad St. Clair and violinist/vocalist Biff Blumfumgagnge decided to tackle this project, knowing Zappa drew on influences ranging from Stravinsky to Leadbelly, they felt it was important to assemble musicians with backgrounds as far-flung as his influences.

The result is a fantastically diverse band, from acclaimed classical composer/pianist Scott Gendel, to award-winning jazz trumpeter/arranger Paul Dietrich, to Patrick Stillman, whose manic guitar playing has been honed from years of slugging it out in bar bands. Geoff Brady has worn a lot of polyester suits in his role as a symphonic percussionist, while drummer Lou Caldarola's career includes over a decade of touring with the top Rush tribute band in North America. Bass trombonist David Spies is a classical euphonium player playing hooky, and Eric Koppa is a renowned saxophonist with deep roots in the Chicago free jazz scene. And then there are the founding Bongos: Conrad, a former Julliard-trained flutist whose career as a bassist runs the stylistic gamut; and Biff, the resident musical chameleon - if it has strings, he can play it.

Four extremely accomplished vocalists round out the band, with training and experience ranging from opera to R&B to heavy metal. Lo Marie, Mike Massey, Scott Gendel, and Biff have a jaw-dropping collective resume, including work with artists like Yo Yo Ma, Robert Fripp, and Les Paul.

Because Zappa's music was constantly evolving and adapted to the musicians he was playing with at a given time, much less of it was written down than a lot of people realize. To do the proper homework for this project, Conrad and Biff tracked down hundreds of pages of transcriptions and quickly scribbled notes from former band members and other sources, spent hours and hours comparing different versions of the songs, and even dug up rare scores in Frank's own hand (coffee stains included). Arthur Barrow, Zappa's bassist and Clonemeister from 1978 to '81, has been instrumental in this effort, and a sounding board throughout the process. Other band alumni who have provided support in one way or another include Robert Martin, Scott Thunes, and Adrian Belew.

Conrad St. Clair: bass, music director, arranger
Conrad has a host of credits as a touring bassist, an audio engineer, and a theatrical sound designer. He's played with Mick Fleetwood, mixed FOH for BB King, and designed for Madison Opera. Conrad's long-running creative project, Kicksville (which includes many fellow Bongos), is a critically-acclaimed collective described by Wired Magazine as "...code gone wild in the Matrix."

Conrad likes long walks on the beach, and crisp fall mornings. His hobbies include smoking too much, collecting used gaffer's tape, and troll hunting on Facebook.

Favorite Zappa quote: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library."

Biff Blumfumgagnge: vocals, violin, guitar
Biff has also had a wide-ranging career as both a musician and a tech. He has played with Les Paul, Adrian Belew, and Napoleon Murphy Brock. He tours with King Crimson as their horn/MIDI/light tech, and has a long track record as a live and studio engineer. Biff has been a Zombeatle, a Gomer, and a Reptile, and he's a proud citizen of Kicksville.

Biff's turn-ons are aged gouda, pinball, and "weirdness." His turn-offs are egomania, bad food, and banjos. He is also a big fan of the soft-drink, Tab - he's been known to drink an entire six-pack at a single rehearsal, all the while cajoling everyone to try it, insisting it actually tastes GREAT.

Favorite Zappa quote: "Music is the best."

Lou Caldarola: drum kit
Lou is a well-known session player, an instructor at School of Rock, and works constantly with a plethora of musical projects. One of his main gigs is Limelight: a Tribute to Rush, which has toured nationally for 16 years, including three appearances at the official Rushcon in Toronto. He can also be seen live with Kicksville, Adriangale, and many others.

He loves crayon art, coloring books, and LOTS of vegetables. For fun, he likes to randomly pick things up and re-order them, polish his hockey puck collection, and obsess over Neil Gaiman comic, "graphic novels."

Favorite Zappa quote: "Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid."

Lo Marie: vocals, guitar
Lo Marie is a singer/songwriter with a particular affinity for hard grooves at chill tempos. She earned her degree in music from Vanderbilt University, and has toured the US and abroad with songs from her two award-winning albums of original material, Solid Ground and Beyond the Age of Reason. She also teaches at Girls/Ladies Rock Camp, runs a composition program at local high schools, and performs in multiple ensembles of varying styles.

Lo’s hobbies include reading cat-themed birthday cards at Walgreens, participating in Winesday Wednesday with Kathie Lee and Hoda, and searching for love at Metro Market. She is fueled by coffee and rage.

Favorite Zappa quote: “The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting, literally; for other arts, figuratively - because without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.”

Scott Gendel: keyboards, vocals
Beyond his skills as a pianist, singer, and vocal coach, Scott is a well-known composer whose work has been recorded by such artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Julia Faulkner, and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. He is the official staff pianist and principal coach for Madison Opera, but he also is co-founder of The Landed Gentry (a rock band based in Madison, WI), and performs with the opera/rock fusion project The Tapestry (Nashville, TN).

Scott loves butt jokes, being a Social Justice Bard (rather than a Warrior), and doing whatever people tell him not to do. Despite his Jersey Shore roots, Scott only wears a handful of gold chains, and they're always tasteful.

Favorite Zappa quote: “It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”

Mike Massey: vocals
Michael is a composer, singer, songwriter, pianist, performer, and producer who has written or collaborated on over 350 songs as well as composing the score for the full length, Dracula: A Rock Ballet. He has six critically-acclaimed albums, and he is currently writing a musical.

Mike’s hobbies include kicking field goals in the nude and translating War and Peace into Aramaic. He is also president of the Harpo Marx Fan Club™.

Favorite Zappa quote, "The universe consists of 5% protons, 5% neutrons, 5% electrons, and 85% morons.”

Geoff Brady: vibes, marimba, percussion
Geoff studied music at New England Conservatory and UW-Madison. He was a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra for well over ten years, he's a core member of Yid Vicious Klezmer Ensemble, and he’s performed with various jazz and/or avant-garde ensembles including Stray Passage, Tomato Box, Kicksville, The Scott Fields Ensemble, and Sockrates Sock Puppet Carnival of Morals and Logic.

He is currently hard at work on his one-man show, Me, Me, Look At Me!: A One Man Show, and in addition, Geoff could throw a football right over that mountain.

Favorite Zappa quote: "You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline."

Patrick Stillman: guitar
True story: Pat woke up one morning after a gig with his pockets stuffed full of marshmallows. He has no idea how they got there.

Favorite Zappa quote: "Most people wouldn't know good music if it came up and bit them on the ass."

David Spies: bass trombone
Dave plays lots of low brass, including bass trombone, euphonium, and tuba. Outside the Bongos, he plays with the Madison Jazz Orchestra, Racine Symphony, and is a core member of internationally-renowned Yid Vicious Klezmer Ensemble. He's performed alongside Kenny Wayne Shepherd, James Taylor, and Canadian Brass, and he teaches at Carroll University.

Away from his musical endeavors, Dave likes reading epic Finnish poetry by lamplight, buzzing on his plastic mouthpiece, waxing eloquent about Monty Python, and spreading the Gospel of St. Urho.

Favorite Zappa quote: "Some scientists claim that the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."

Paul Dietrich: trumpet
Paul is a trumpet player, composer, and arranger. He is the leader of the Paul Dietrich Quintet and the Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble, and performs with artists ranging from the ECM-inspired trio, Space Junk, to the Afrobeat group, Immigré. As a composer, Paul has commissions from Lawrence University, the UW-Madison Jazz Orchestra, and the Edgar Knecht Trio, among many others.

Always the life of the party, Paul's gregariousness hides a very vulnerable side. He cares deeply about baby seals and starving children (although he hates hates HATES kittens), and he has always wanted to be the tragic main character in a classic gothic novel.

Favorite Zappa quote: "A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians."

Eric Koppa: saxophones
A distinguished alumnus of Western Michigan University, Eric has had the distinct pleasure of studying and performing with many venerated teachers including, Trent Kynaston, Seamus Blake, Chris Potter, Von Freeman, Roscoe Mitchell, Danilo Perez, Billy Hart, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Richie Cole, John Sampen, Jim Snidero, Walt Weiskopf, James Carter, Pat Mallinger, Gunnar Mossblad, Kenny Werner, and Paul Hartsaw.

Eric values time with his family, and enjoys using a hook attached to the end of a stick to capture small aquatic creatures. More than most anything, he likes curling up in front of a warm fire with his dog-eared copy of The Gulag Archipelago.

Favorite Zappa quote: "Let's not be too rough on our own ignorance; it's what makes America great!"

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