Don Was, who became a superstar producer after the breakup of his Detroit funk band Was (Not Was), begged for a little forgiveness early in a short set — “This is only our second gig in 14 years,” he noted. There’s some rust that needs to be scraped off and a few elements could be tightened, but the unique spirit and madcap lyrics of Was (Not Was) makes a welcome return.
In a 70-minute show, the band demonstrated a willingness to push their music toward jams and a bit more free-form playing than in their heyday. Was (Not Was) rarely toured, but the band was focused and tight in the spirit of James Brown & the Ohio Players.
“Tell Me That I’m Dreaming,” for example, grew loose and ragged, hinted at the Talking Heads and segued into “Out Come the Freaks,” which may as well have been lifted from George Clinton’s songbook.
Brown’s “Cold Sweat” was given a Texas shuffle treatment; “Dad, I’m in Jail” was fleshed out with some controlled mayhem. “Walk the Dinosaur,” at 15 years old, has such an effective and timeless groove it could be a hit today.
Band offered only one new tune, “Mr. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and it went in a Memphis soul direction rarely traveled by the band. (For the record, Don Was (Fagenson) plays the bass; David Was (Weiss) is the flutist, poet and a vocalist).
Even with longtime Was (Not Was) vets Randy Jacobs on guitar and David McMurray on saxophone, and singer Sweet Pea Atkinson providing a fierce growl, the presence of a second front-line vocalist (Sir Harry Bowens) was sorely missed.
Band performs Jan. 6 at B.B. King’s in New York.