It was a snowy January night back in 1984 when I first encountered the Watusies. Singer Dan Mulholland, fresh from a long stint with the popular Urbations, had recruited keyboardist Fred Klein and guitarist Chris Casello (and later drummer Bill Newland) from the rockabilly-inflected Untouchables. Bassist Oni Werth was added, and the new band took the stage at current WEMU host Joe Tiboni’s late, great Joe’s Star Lounge.
What followed was a powerful tour through the backwaters and side cuts of the previous thirty years of American music. The band tore through inspired covers of songs by artists as diverse as Elmore James, Iggy Pop, the Shadows of Knight, T. Rex, Dylan, the Electric Prunes, Bo Diddley, and Link Wray, along with a solid stack of originals written by Dan and the group. Blues, garage, Detroit rock, early psychedelia, and rockabilly were all represented. The eclectic selection was driven by Mulholland’s obsession with music in all its glorious forms and articulated through his legendary record collection. Add to that the band’s charming habit of adding a different adjective to their name for each gig (e.g., The Golden Watusies, the Wah-Wah Watusies, the Super Duper Watusies), and a local phenomenon was born.
The original lineup lasted just over two years, although the Watusies carried on with various personnel changes until 1988. From the beginning, the band was one of the area’s most popular, regularly filling the live music venues of the day, like Joe’s, Rick’s American Cafe, the Nectarine, the U Club, the Mile High Club at the Heidelberg, and the Blind Pig, as well as clubs in Detroit, Lansing, and Kalamazoo. By the end of the Eighties, however, the local Ann Arbor music scene was shifting from live music to a DJ-driven dance scene, and the Watusies faded with the decade.
Fast-forward to 2007. The winds shift, the stars realign, and a series of reminiscences leads to a serious conversation, which leads to the first of two annual reunion shows at the Blind Pig. The lights go down, the sound goes up, and the Watusies take the stage. Wiser and more experienced, these men have twenty-plus years of musical chops that breathe vibrant new life into the old repertoire, which the band handles with an ease and familiarity that melt the decades away. It’s as if they’d never left.
The crowd is filled with friends, family, and diehards from the salad days. The audience, too, is a bit more experienced and (one hopes) wiser as well, but they dance like it’s 1985. It’s wonderful to see the folks from the old scene again, the people who came together to dance and sing along with their favorite bands every weekend. And the audience is filled with younger folks, too, people who’ve been advised not to miss a chance to sample an all-but-vanished local live music scene. Songs like Iggy’s “Kill City” or originals such as “Teenage Valentino” and “Edna” fill the dance floor with bodies and kinetic energy. The band is really working now, and the songs tumble down from the stage and fill the bar as the young, old, and in-between dance like there’s no tomorrow.
The Watusies reunite again at the season’s final happy hour at LIVE, on Friday, June 3 (see Nightspots), and it promises to rival the high energy and fun quotient of the previous reunions. True fans have already made their plans, but the uninitiated should plug this show into their calendars now. If you want to get a sense of what the Ann Arbor music scene was like in its heyday, the Watusies will take you there and then some. Bring your dancin’ shoes.