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.
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