We started out as a dance band,” Don Was said near the end of the first Was (Not Was) show in New York in 14 years. That much was verifiable by the medley of early-’80s mutant-disco hits the band then played in honor of Ze Records chief Michael Zilkha, who was in the house to toast his old charges: “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” into “Wheel Me Out” into “Out Come the Freaks,” all of which grooved hard. But if the band began as out-there Detroit outsiders—led by brothers (not brothers) Don and David Was, and filled out by a variety of singers and multi-instrumentalists, including the inimitable Sweet Pea Atkinson—what on earth did they become? By the late ’80s Don was a high-profile producer and the band’s music was a bizarre mélange of tinny dancepop, hard-rock squall, chewed-up r&b corn, and absurdist spoken-word invective. Go back and examine “Walk the Dinosaur” on whichever Me Decade anthology you find it on—it’s probably three times more bonkers than you remember.
At B.B.’s, in a muscular seven-piece incarnation that featured more members donning hats than not, the band did what all true eccentrics do: played like there was nothing weird whatsoever about what they were playing. Sometimes it worked: Sweet Pea growled through “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with his eyes closed, while David McMurray took a hard session-guy sax solo. “Where Did Your Heart Go” floated away on a wave of maudlin keyboard foam. Don motored “Dinosaur” with a rubbery bass groove and David blew out a fruity flute loop. Sometimes their idiosyncrasies emerged anyway: “We originally did this song when I was a young reprobate,” David admitted before revving up a tweaked-out “Hello Dad . . . I’m in Vail,” complete with a sweet condo and impressive slopes; earlier, he dedicated “I Blew Up the United States” to “the victims of 11/2.” Don introduced the evening’s only new song by explaining that he and David wrote it with Bob Dylan for Paula Abdul. “She rejected it,” he shrugged. “But it’s good enough for us.”