From the 4/4 Motown back-beat driving the opening selections through the note-perfect, symphonic soul version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” during the encore, the group Was (Not Was) paid homage to--and sardonically tweaked--25 years of R&B; dance styles during its hourlong set at the Whisky on Tuesday.
The 11-piece ensemble recalled George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic thang but in a soul classicist vein. This Detroit-bred crew would cruise into town in Cadillacs instead of beaming down from the Mothership.
Was (Not Was) didn’t always play it straight musically, but the kicker was that its sterling lead vocalists--gritty shouter Sweet Pea Atkinson and satin smoothie Sir Harry Bowens--were applying the techniques and emotionalism of classic soul singing to skewered lyrics far removed from the usual love and romance realm of soul music. “Spy in the House of Love” was a clever take on the staple theme of romantic obsession while “Walk the Dinosaur” was just delightfully, danceably silly.
But that arch, parodic wit allowed a troubling element of emotional distance to creep in as the rapid-fire, impressively executed set wore on. How can these guys be singing so passionately about this off-the-wall stuff? That contradiction is certainly part of the Was (Not Was) rationale, but the group would be doubly effective if it occasionally came to grips with the heartfelt content of soul music as expertly as it manipulates its musical form.