Festival Preview: WasFest — Nothing If Not Multifarious

By Scott McLennan

“Everyone involved was committed to doing something different and eclectic,” WasFest curator Don Was said. “It’s a mixed bag, and that’s what we wanted.”

Don Was — a sharp purveyor of high-quality musical happenings. Photo: Gabi Porter

What makes Don Was such an indispensable figure on the music scene isn’t simply related to what he can do as a performing artist or record label executive or creative director. Rather it’s his attention to detail and appreciation for vibe that have established Was as a sharp purveyor of high-quality musical happenings.

And there’s no denying the “Was factor” in the festival bearing the Was name (WasFest) which begins its inaugural run in Boston on June 23 (through 25). An expansive mix of artists from the worlds of jazz, funk, rock and reggae are slated for performances at Boston’s Wang and Shubert theaters. The shows will be distinctive, each offering either an interesting backstory or raison d’être for taking place in that particular setting.

Was referenced the first Detroit Rock and Roll Revival, a festival he attended as a teen in 1969, as an inspiration for the event he curated for Boston.

“I saw Sun Ra, the Stooges, and Chuck Berry all on the same day. I miss that kind of show,” said Was, reached by phone not long after serving as bandleader for a multi-artist Hollywood Bowl concert paying tribute to Willie Nelson on the occasion of the country legend’s 90th birthday. The Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (established by the Boch Center, which operates the WasFest venues) and Blue Note Records also shaped this event.

Lettuce. Photo: Jeremy Elder

In 2019, the Boch Center opened the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame in the Wang Theater. The space is dedicated to housing exhibits dedicated to the life and times of the pioneers of American music. Blue Note Records is a preeminent jazz imprint that, over the decades, has released influential works by Wayne Shorter, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Charles Lloyd and many others. In 2012, Was became president of the record label, and he continues to act on a strong commitment to releasing music that pushes and stretches the concepts of jazz as a genre.

Boch Center Executive Director Josiah Spaulding and Was go back to their early days in the Detroit music scene. Spaulding reached out to Was about collaborating on a musical event that aligned with the Hall of Fame’s mission to “honor the past, celebrate the present and nurture the future.”

“Working with FARHOF is a big deal,” Was said. “The best music is made by artists  who understand the roots and what came before them.” Accordingly, WasFest features some contemporary artists covering influential albums in their entirety or, in the case of reggae legends Steel Pulse, pianist Robert Glasper, and progressive singer-songwriter-bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, revisiting their own landmark works.

The festival begins with the Dark Star Orchestra at the Wang and shows led by Glasper and Ndegeocello at the Shubert.

DSO formed in 1997 around the concept of not just covering songs by the Grateful Dead, but recreating entire concerts that had been performed by the heralded group. For WasFest, DSO will play the same set of tunes the Grateful Dead presented on Nov. 14, 1978, at the Boston Music Hall, which is now the Wang.

Oddly enough, this show falls one night before Dead and Company, led by original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart,  will perform a pair of shows at Fenway Park. Even more oddly, Was said he had no idea DeadCo and WasFest were booked for the same weekend, even though he and Weir are bandmates in another project, the Wolf Brothers.

But credit Weir for inspiring Was to encourage WasFest artists to take some chances with their festival sets. “I’ve been playing with Bob Weir for six years,” said Was, who plays bass in the Wolf Brothers combo. “And at first, I couldn’t understand why the audience would cheer whenever he flubbed lyrics. But then I realized they saw that as proof that what he was doing was not canned, and that’s what they appreciated.”

Progressive singer-songwriter-bassist Meshell Ndegreocello. Photo: courtesy of the artist

A pair of Blue Note artists split the Friday night bill at the Shubert. Ndegeocello just released The Omnichord Real Book, her first album for Blue Note. But for her WasFest appearance, Ndegeocello will present a full rendition of her groundbreaking 1993 album Plantation Lullabies. Glasper will present a mix of tunes from his three volumes of Black Radio albums, all released by Blue Note. Singers STOUT, Stokley, and Bilal are joining Glasper. And don’t be surprised if Ndegeocello teams up with Glasper for a tune or two; her first appearance on a Blue Note record was her performance of “The Consequence of Jealousy” on his first Black Radio album.

On June 24, WasFest celebrates two classic Blue Note albums from the mid-’60s at the Shubert. The concert features a performance of Grant Green’s Street of Dreams by guitarist Julian Lage and his trio partners of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King. They will be joined by keyboardist John Medeski. Another supergroup, made up of pianist Gerald Clayton, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, bassist Harish Raghavan ,and drummer Kendrick Scott will tackle Wayne Shorter’s album Speak No Evil.

Was called Speak No Evil the “crown jewel” of the Blue Note catalog. Saxophonist Shorter died on March 2, about a month prior to the announcement of WasFest. Was said the artists he asked to perform had already settled on pieces to play by then, making the presentation of Speak No Evil even more poignant.

It just so happened that Boston-bred avant-funk troupe Lettuce and reggae stalwarts Steel Pulse are on tour together this summer and Was is a fan of both groups. The show on June 25 will have both bands on the same bill, each offering a special performance for the festival.

Pianist Robert Glasper. Photo: courtesy of the artist

“I saw Lettuce at the Fillmore and just fell in love with them,” Was recalled. As for Steel Pulse, Was said that because of his quirky pop-rock band from the ’80s, Was (Not Was), he felt a strong kinship with the British reggae band — both groups emphasized social concerns in their music. “They have been making important statements and delivering a great groove. It is like a Trojan Horse message, and we were trying to do the same thing,” Was said.

For WasFest, singer Judith Hill will join Lettuce for a recreation of Aretha Franklin’s Aretha Live at the Filmore West. And Steel Pulse will play the entirety of its classic 1982 album True Democracy.

Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch claims that True Democracy helped keep his band together during some very long van rides. “We’d put on Steel Pulse, and everyone would chill out,” he joked.

Deitch said that Lettuce doesn’t ever want to be considered a “cover band,” and sparingly does tributes of the sort it’s assembling for WasFest. But the Lettuce drummer admitted he is looking forward to diving into the parts that Bernard Purdie performed on those magical nights in 1971 when the King Curtis band was backing Franklin at the height of her powers.

“There were spirits in the room that night. Everyone was playing so great,” Deitch said, adding about Purdie, “Without that man, I would be in another line of work.”

Deitch said that his band has been working on those classic Franklin tracks during soundchecks before its recent shows. They will have very little time to rehearse with Hill. But the drummer has already jammed with her at a free-form event in Colorado and welcomes how the upcoming performance has a high-wire aspect to it.

It is that sense of stepping outside of safety zones that epitomizes what Was had in mind when curating this inaugural fest. “Everyone involved was committed to doing something different and eclectic,” Was said. “It’s a mixed bag, and that’s what we wanted.”

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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