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PREVIEW: Bringing Back that Detroit Sound (Don Was & The Pan-Detroit Ensemble at The Dakota)

Don Was and the Pan-Detroit Ensemble. Photo by Gemma Corfield.

The legendary musician Don Was will be bringing his new Pan-Detroit Ensemble, as well as his many lifetimes of musical experience, to The Dakota for two shows (6:30 pm and 8:30 pm) on May 21.

Most of us came across Was for the first time forty-plus years ago in the Funk/Soul group, “Was (Not Was).”  Born Donald Fagenson, he was “Don Was” in the group and David Weiss was his “brother,” “David Was,” and they were joined by lead singers, Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens.  The act put out fun and eminently danceable songs, like “Walk the Dinosaur”.

Along with writing and making music, Was has had an enormously successful (11 Grammy nominations, 5 wins) career producing music, working with a wide range of stars across many genres:  Wayne Shorter, Aaron Neville, Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Rait, Lucinda Williams, and The Rolling Stones, just to name a small sample.

…but that was clearly not keeping Was sufficiently busy, as he has also worked as the musical director or consultant on several motion pictures (everything from Thelma and Louise and The Rainmaker to Toy Story).  He won a British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Original Score for the music for the movie, Backbeat, and he directed and produced the award-winning documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, about former Beach Boy Brian Wilson.  Additionally, he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction for his work on the TV special, The Beatles: The Night That Changed America.  And, if all of that was not enough, since 2012 he been President of the great jazz label, Blue Note Records.

A promotional photo of the legendary, multigenre musician Don Was. Photo by Miryam Ramos.

While now over 70, Was has not slowed down.  Since 2018, he has been playing with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, as Wolf Brothers.  While they are on hiatus, Was is on the road with a new group he has put together, The Pan-Detroit Ensemble.  As the name indicates, the Ensemble is made up of musicians from Was’s hometown.  Some of them (like saxophone master, Dave McMurray, and Eminem’s collaborator, keyboard player, Luis Resto) he has been playing with for 40 years. Also in the group are Vincent Chandler on trombone, John Douglas on trumpet, Jeff Canaday and Mahindi on percussion, Wayne Gerard on guitar, and vocalist Steffanie Christi’ann.

  • Listen to a sample of their sound:

In interviews, Was often speaks about “the Detroit sound” – a certain sensibility that runs through John Lee Hooker, Donald Bird, MC5, Mitch Rider, The Stooges, and, of course, Motown Records.  It is, Was says, an “underlying groove” and an “unpretentious rawness” which comes from living in a place that had always been a one-industry town, where everyone’s fortunes rose and fell with how the automobile companies were faring.

Don Was in the studio. Photo by Miryam Ramos.

Was says that he is greatly looking forward to the Ensemble’s appearance at The Dakota, as it the group’s first public appearance.  There is something magical, he says, about a first night, the excellence of “the beginner’s mind.”  Was also reports that there is a sound in his head that he has been chasing for 30 years.  Maybe at The Dakota he will finally catch it.

Don Was & The Pan-Detroit Ensemble perform at The Dakota in Minneapolis, MN at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm on May 21. 

Brian Bix