Was (Not Was), Carling Academy, Islington, London

5.00

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect