Old but never retro
Don Was kept it simple, pushing his bass to the side as he introduced the long-missed conglomeration onstage at the Orpheum Theatre on Thursday night. “We’re Was (Not Was),” he said. “From Detroit.” He spoke the truth, though several decades separated the band’s original members from their funky hometown.
A Detroit of the musical imagination is the stamping ground of Was (Not Was) -- a place where there’s no contradiction between dance floor imperatives and the dictates of the avant-garde, where usually distanced genres melt into a vivid puddle, and where telling a good joke is just as important as making a glorious noise.
“Was (Not Was), like Detroit, is an endearing mess,” Creem editor Brian J. Bowe wrote in 2004. More of a mash-up than a mess, I’d say. It resurfaced like a beautiful mirage at this Valentine’s Day party, which also featured guest artists Kris Kristofferson and Brian Wilson broadening the map from Nashville to California.
Was (Not Was), the poetic funk band that thrived during the anything-goes 1980s, is back with a new album, “Boo!,” to be released April 8. The group, formed in 1979 by childhood friends Don and David (born Fagenson and Weiss), was key within the movement that transformed art rock into a liberating antidote to Reaganism.
Today’s gifted retro-fetishists, like Mark Ronson, could take a chill pill from this band’s cabinet; Was (Not Was) is that rare thing, an interracial group with an encyclopedic sense of pop history but no interest in the fuss or fashion consciousness of soul revivalism.
This night showed the recently reunited group in muscular form. Original singers Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell crowned long musical workouts in soulful harmonies. Atkinson’s lead vocals showed off his skills as a shouter, while Bowens took the reins on smoother, falsetto-oriented songs. Drummer James Gadson, who co-wrote and played on many of Bill Withers’ hits as well as “I Will Survive” and “Dancing Machine,” kept things lubricated on the bottom.
Decked out in gleaming zoot suits, the singers were equally at home delivering old-school soul or the Surrealist sci-fi lyrics of “I Blew Up the United States” and “Out Come the Freaks,” written by flutist and occasional vocalist David Was. The effect was a little bit Zappa and a whole lot George Clinton, especially when David himself took the mike and rapped in his organization-man monotone.
David’s lyrics conjured images of Fidel Castro, time travel and a boat trip shared by Donovan and Curtis Mayfield. The mash-up that featured that fantasy captured the night’s sound: greasy psychedelic soul. Keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac, killer guitarist Randy Jacobs and saxophonist Paul Shilts rounded out the band. Don, who now spends his days as a superstar producer, seemed overjoyed to lay back and slap his bass.
The Orpheum’s cushy seats waylaid the dance party that should have erupted, but the crowd did get up for the night’s guest stars. Kristofferson, who worked with Don on his 2006 album, “This Old Road,” crooned his greats, including “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” with conversational ease. He wore his legend like an old pair of jeans, interrupting himself with wisecracks and enjoying trying to harmonize with the fuller-voiced Bowens.
Wilson, always unpredictable onstage, loped out near the evening’s end with several of his own band members in tow. “Hasn’t this night been a gas?” he exclaimed, revving up for a raucous “California Girls.” He was more tentative on the ballad “God Only Knows” but then spearheaded the night’s goofiest moment: an all-hands-on-deck round of “Row Row Row Your Boat.”
Don Was declared it time for an encore, and the band and all guests (including the wonderful Jill Sobule, who opened) joined in on a Tex-Mex version of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” Wilson did a knee-slapping dance stage left; Bowens and Kristofferson shared a mike. It was chaos. Good chaos. The kind that happens in that mythical Detroit, the one Was (Not Was) still brings to town.