Was (Not Was), Carling Academy, Islington, London
Motor City boys keep on rollin'
Night-time in Islington, and out come the freaks. A fair complement of them are crammed together up on the Academy stage, jostling for position as they take solos or execute impromptu little dance routines during one of the most enjoyable shows I've seen in some while. So, just how freaky are Was (Not Was)? Well, freaky enough to imagine the world is any more ready to take an absurdist soul-band to its heart now than it was when they last performed in London, 16 years ago – and freaky enough to be right, despite the odds stacked against them.
In an age of prefabricated charm-school popstrels, talent-contest wannabes and predictably rebellious rockers, a band such as Was (Not Was) appear to have nothing going for them. Few of them will see 40, let alone 30, again (indeed, one of their trio of singers, Donald Ray Mitchell, is introduced as "the new guy in the band – he's only been with us 25 years"). Their music is firmly rooted in the style of an earlier era, albeit one hurtling back into fashion courtesy of Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson and Duffy. And behind the appealing veneer of soul and funk stylings, their songs are lyrically bizarre, to an almost seditious degree.
Seriously, if any American group of the post-September 11 era were to release a catchy song about the assassination of a president ("Eleven Miles an Hour"), or even think of calling another song "I Blew Up the United States", their homes would doubtless swiftly be surrounded by Homeland Security agents bearing one-way tickets to Guantanamo Bay. Yet here's this motley crew of bohemians and soulmen, cheerily urging a London crowd to sing along with their warped vision of the universe, and getting away with it.
They could hardly have picked a better city, though, as bassist Don Was acknowledges while introducing a medley of early Was (Not Was) favourites – the band's first successes came as a result of those first weird records breaking out as London club hits. But what comes across most strongly now is not the oddball, outsider cast of tracks such as "Wheel Me Out", "Walk the Dinosaur" and "Out Come the Freaks", but just how infectiously compelling their riffs remain.
Growing up among the stew of musical influences in Sixties Detroit – from avant-garde jazz, through Motown's black pop, to MC5's revolutionary rock – has clearly left this crew with an encyclopaedic grasp of pop history, which they plunder joyously for a mash-up piece such as "Sunshine Superfly", explained by the band's laconic, flute-toting lyricist Dave Was as the compromise reached by Donovan and Curtis Mayfield when vying for the Superfly soundtrack gig. Seamlessly segueing from verses of "Sunshine Superman" into choruses of "Superfly", they ensure a roomful of smiles, the band's geniality clear evidence that, despite the obvious technical mastery of the likes of saxophonist Shilts, keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac and guitarist Randy Jacobs, they don't take themselves too seriously.
The classic-soul influence discernible here and in their great version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone" persists into the new material from their comeback album, Boo!, particularly the single "Crazy Water", a thinly disguised borrowing of the "634-5789" groove tricked out with a typically left-field narrative. It's attacked with relish by the vocal trio, in which Sweet Pea Atkinson's gruff leads are interspersed with the sweeter tones of Mitchell and Sir Harry Bowens, their individual timbres allowing them to bring Dave Was's most surreal characters to authentic, emotional life.
Bowens' delivery of the second, slower version of "Out Come the Freaks" is a rich pantomime of human curiosities, while Mitchell provides one of the night's highlights with his tender rendition of the new album's "From the Head to the Heart", on which he manages to bring genuine pathos to a blackly comic tragedy. All this, and Temptations-style dinosaur-walk dance moves too: now that's entertainment.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
- 2 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 3 Andy Murray takes to Twitter to show off his Christmas jumper
- 4 Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'
- 5 Top 10 travel destinations for 2015: From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Katie Hopkins speaks out on childhood obesity: 'Parents of fat children should be prosecuted for child cruelty'