At the Birchmere, a Good (Not Good) Night for Was (Not Was)
In 1988, the Detroit-formed outfit Was (Not Was) hit the charts and MTV with a blend of pop, R&B and goofy lyrics called "Walk the Dinosaur." Tuesday night, the current version of the group delivered a moderately successful set of old and new cuts in a very loud appearance at the usually less ear-blowing Birchmere.
The founders -- bassist Don Was (born Donald Fagenson) and flutist David Was (born David Weiss) -- are fans of earthy Stax soul, psychedelic funk and the comedy troupe Firesign Theatre, and they have always ambitiously tried to cram these diverse styles into their songs. Twenty-eight years after the formation of Was (Not Was), these influences still predominate.
At the Birchmere, the set was occasionally weakened by stereotypical arrangements with obligatory guitar solos and generic saxophone interludes. The combo sounded best when the focus was on the vocalists: the raspy soul of Sweet Pea Atkinson, the middle range of Sir Harry Bowens, and the falsetto of Donald Ray Mitchell. Mitchell's lead made the new tragic ballad "From the Head to the Heart" work, while the three added church-rooted harmonies on several cuts.
The singers' catchy choruses, along with the band's dance beats and reggae dub echoes, made a highlight of the medley of early '80s songs including "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming," "Wheel Me Out" and "Out Come the Freaks." The band closed with "Knocked Down, Made Small," capturing the good and bad of Was (Not Was) live circa 2008 -- jagged staccato rhythms, raw stirring singing and another cliched guitar solo.
-- Steve Kiviat