The Legend of Stinkfoot

Tribute band Stinkfoot Orchestra stays true to the work of Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa is one of the few artists who captured a wide spectrum of musical genres. His work includes avant garde classical, doo wop, rock and jazz, making his catalog tough for bands to cover. 

Stinkfoot Orchestra, a Frank Zappa tribute band named after one of his songs, is tackling the iconic musician’s body of work and will perform with a former key member of Zappa’s band at the WOW Hall 8 pm Friday, August 5. That key member, Ike Willis, is a musician who performed with Zappa during the ’70s and ’80s.

Nick Chargin, the leader of the group, says the endeavor to start a Zappa tribute band was a project that began before COVID-19. He says his original plan was to lead a band that could perform Zappa’s work in the Bay Area around the late musician’s 80th birthday. 

Chargin’s plans to play shows around San Francisco were delayed due to COVID. But during that time, he says the band dug into Zappa’s work to have it ready for the stage. “In many ways, COVID was our friend,” he laughs. 

At the start, Chargin says he had former Zappa bandmate Napoleon Brock jam with the band. Brock performed on some of Zappa’s popular albums, including Hot Rats and Apostrophe(’), and after the session, Chargin recalls Brock telling him, “‘Frank would’ve been proud. You did good.’” 

“That was pretty much it for me. I was happy right there. I could’ve died the next day,” Chargin says. 

In addition to humorous lyrics with biting social commentary, Zappa’s approach to songwriting is often seen as unconventional. His songs often feature xylophones as prominently as guitar, so Chargin had to find bandmates whose talents are used more in an orchestral setting. 

To perform Zappa’s work on stage, Chargin assembled a 10-piece band, including horns as well as guitars, keyboards, bass and drums. The group has players from various genres, from classical-oriented xylophones to jazz-based saxophones and salsa-focused trombonists. 

“People have come from all different worlds,” Chargin says. “It’s a testament to the music that it crosses so many boundaries. There’s something for everybody.” 

Chargin’s Stinkfoot Orchestra includes Willis, who performed with Zappa on stage and in the studio from 1978 to 1988. That decade was one of Zappa’s strongest, Chargin says, when Zappa released Joe’s Garage, Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar and You Are What You Is. 

But Chargin says the band won’t be limited to songs from that Zappa era. “I’ve been conscious about bringing in songs from all different eras,” he says. Stinkfoot’s setlist also includes songs that Willis didn’t record with Zappa, such as “Muffin Man,” “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It,” “Inca Roads,” “Peaches En Regalia” and more. 

Zappa’s work has been performed by many tribute bands since his death in 1992, from groups formed by former bandmates to orchestral groups like Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt to Zappa’s own children. Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, had led a tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa. That band was sidelined by his family, who filed cease and desist orders. 

Although Chargin hasn’t spoken with the Zappa family, he says that he hasn’t received any legal demands to stop touring. 

And for Chargin, going on the road to perform with a key member of Zappa’s band from the ’70s and ’80s is what he was hoping for when he assembled the group. “For me, the ’88 ensemble was the ultimate,” Chargin says. “That was what I was going for.”

Stinkfoot Orchestra plays 8 pm Friday, August 5, at the WOW Hall; $22 advance, $25 door.