Don Was on Little Feat: as Complex as Prog Rock ‘With More Feel And Soul’

He's organized several tributes, and he told us which one nearly gave him cold feet with 48 hours to showtime.

By Brian Ives

Don Was has lived a lot of musical lives; of course he was one half of the legendary funk duo Was (Not Was); he later went on to a pretty incredible career as a producer, working with Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, and the Rolling Stones (to name just a few). These days, he’s the president of jazz label Blue Note Records, but he also stages tribute concerts to legendary artists including the Beatles, Gregg Allman, the Neville Brothers, Jerry Garcia, and these days, the Band (he just wrapped up a string of shows paying tribute to The Last Waltz, featuring Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule and country star Jamey Johnson). And now, he’s gearing up to pay tribute to Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus; that show, which takes place May 6 as part of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, will also feature Haynes and Johnson. 

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How did you guys come up with the idea of paying tribute to Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus?

We were doing a Jerry Garcia show in DC last year. And just right before we went on, [concert promoter] Keith Wortman, from Blackbird Productions, says, “What should we do this year in New Orleans?” Someone threw out Waiting for Columbus, and we were all just standing there, Jamey, Warren and myself like, “Let’s do that, that’s great,” and now here we are talking about it.

Jamey Johnson is probably a better musician than he gets credit for; I heard he has a degree in music.

Yeah, that’s definitely true. He might have a master’s degree in music. He can play French horn and oboe. He played symphonic music. Everything that his [badass] image would suggest about him is true, but in addition to that, he’s a Renaissance man. I love him, man. I think he’s one of the most talented, soulful musicians I ever encountered, and he’s a really great and super intelligent guy.

So he can kick your a– and play the oboe.

With his boot in your mouth, he can play oboe [laughs].

We just did a big show in Nashville. Warren [Haynes] was on it, a lot of people were on it. It was a Merle Haggard tribute show, and everybody from Loretta Lynn to Keith Richards to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Hank Jr. was on the show. And Jamey went out there, just him and Alison [Krauss], and he played acoustic guitar. He was at a hockey arena with 18,000 people, completely sold out. And his voice filled the place to the rafters. He’s just a gigantic musical personality and there’s just a charisma about him. It was my favorite thing in the show: just him singing, alone, with Alison Krauss.

I’ll tell you something, we did another show in DC, it was for Willie when he got the Gershwin prize. Jamey showed up a day early, and we were just rehearsing the band and he was only gonna sing one song, and he said, “I’ll be at rehearsals, I’ll sing [all] the songs.” And he was able to sing, he knew every song, like things that you wouldn’t expect him to know like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” He didn’t need the lyrics, okay, and he knew the melody, and he could sing it in any key. So he was the rehearsal singer because he was incredibly versatile. He’s a deep cat, a deep guy.

I saw you and Warren Haynes play at the Levon Helm tribute in New Jersey back in 2012; was that the first time you guys played together?

I don’t think so. I think the first time I really spent time with him was when I went with Mick Jagger to the White House when they were doing a blues show. That was quite a night, and that was the first time I really spent time hanging out with Warren.

Related: Don Was On ‘Life-Altering & Life-Affirming’ Love For Levon Helm Concert

So, when you’re organizing these tributes, what is the process? How do you figure out who you’re going to reach out to, and who is going to perform which songs? 

It’s a weird combination of really having to envision the entire thing and being cavalier. So we do give it a lot of thought. But there’s also a lot of room built in for improvisation and spontaneity.

That’s probably inherent when Warren Haynes is involved; he’s a great improviser. I saw his Jerry Garcia tribute concert last year ; he was backed by a symphony orchestra, and he was still probably improvising his solos. 

Oh, totally, yeah. Improvising within a set framework is really more challenging than going totally freeform, and I think you probably get more satisfactory results. So the framework has got many doors to it, and you can sort of pick and choose when you’re there, but the frames are all well-constructed on those tours.

Was doing a Little Feat tribute a harder “sell” than a tribute to Gregg Allman or Levon Helm or Jerry Garcia? You still hear the Allmans and the Band and the Grateful Dead on the radio, but you don’t hear Little Feat that much. 

No, you don’t, and it’s a shame too, because it’s an incredible body of work. I’ve been aware of the music since they started up in the 1970s, but I never played the songs really before. And now getting into it, it’s really complex. Something like “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” the complexity of the arrangement, it’s like a Mozart quartet or something the way they interweave together. And there’s some very specific lines that are phrased in a highly unlikely fashion that you have to play right or you’re not getting to the intention of the song.

It’s quite complex music, and so it’s taken a lot more work than I thought. You can’t just read it off the stage at the show, you have to internalize it, you gotta really keep playing or else it’s like a karaoke show or something. So to get to that point where you internalize a completely alien feel and some things that don’t repeat according to normal patterns; it’s very original music. It’s wonderful really. It’s as complicated as some progressive rock bands of the era, but it’s just got so much more feel and soul to it than some other bands that shall go nameless.

They’re as complex as those bands, but they have a smile on their face while they’re playing.

Yeah, exactly. There’s width to the groove. You’ve got a lot of room in which to land, and there’s room for some improvisation too. But there’s certain touchstones that you have to pay attention to. They just threw the mold out the window, man. They’re really complex songs.

Did you know Lowell George?

No, I didn’t know Lowell George. Actually, I know [bassist] Kenny [Gradney]. He lives about a mile away from me.

That’s another weird thing, with the Levon tribute, it was [the Band’s bass player] Rick Danko, he was a magic mystery figure who I’ve never met, and there’s all this legend about him, but I couldn’t call him up and say, “What were you playing there?” [Danko passed away in 1999.] But I know Kenny, and so far I’ve refrained from calling him. There’ve been a couple times I just wanted to just call him up and say, “Remember that time you played this and it was incredible!” I’ve been trying not to waste my entrée to Kenny with questions.

Are there going to be more Last Waltz shows?

Oh, we love it, man. I’d be happy to play those songs with those guys the rest of my life, I really would. I think there’s an audience for it, and I think you could gather up enough people to make it a viable enterprise. The biggest problem is everybody involved has got careers. Warren’s got a new Gov’t Mule album coming out and he’s booked for the next year, Jamey’s doing stuff. It’s really hard to get everybody together. It’s a miracle we were able to get these two three-week segments together. I think the desire’s there to do more. There’s one thing that definitely happened along the way here is the whole became greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a really good band, and I’d like to see us find a way to keep playing together.

But what’s really weird is that certain things that you think maybe just one particular crowd is into, the same songs play well everywhere every night. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” isn’t limited to south of the Mason-Dixon line. It works in Toronto exactly the same as it did in Atlanta. Those songs are etched deeply in the musical psyche of the American music fans, and no one’s out there playing them. No one’s out there satisfying that need. If I were Robbie Robertson I’d be playing those songs every night, I’d be so proud of that. He’s written some of the greatest songs of all time.

How do you work this into your schedule? You’re the president of Blue Note Records.

I’m the president of Blue Note, yeah. It’s amazing with Wi-Fi what you get done. I can have face-to-face meetings on Facetime if I need to. Here’s the most important thing about this: someone at the record company, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the president of the company, but somebody better know what it’s like to get up onstage and pick up an instrument and have a transcendental experience for three hours. If you don’t understand [that] that’s the thing that’s at the core of the records we make, and that’s the lifeblood of the artists that we deal with, and if you’re just gonna talk about contracts and marketing with them, then you’re not gonna run a very good record company.

So I see it as an essential part of the gig to get out there and play as much as I can and I think it really helps me in serving the artists who are signed to Blue Note. And it’s amazing what you can get done just typing emails on your phone, and it’s amazing what gets taken care of if you’re onstage and no one can find you for three hours, things have a way of getting resolved. So it’s working out just fine, yeah.

I just saw [Blue Note artist] Trombone Shorty at Madison Square Garden opening up for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What can you tell me about his upcoming record?

Oh, I think he’s made the record that finally captures the essence of what’s going on onstage with him. I think the songwriting’s brilliant, I think his singing is shockingly great. I didn’t know he could sing that well. I knew he was a good singer; I didn’t know he was that great a singer. My reaction to hearing the music was: what the Meters did to New Orleans music in the ’70s as far as taking the fundamentals and putting them into another era, I think that’s what he’s doing right now. I think he’s the heir to that crown.

He’s the guy who closes the New Orleans Jazzfest every year, which sort of makes him the heir, right?

Yeah, he is, and in addition to being a magnetic performer, he goes real deep, and I think you’ll hear that on this album. You’ll hear a kind of music that it’s got the groove and it’s got the tones of New Orleans, but he’s digging in deep and taking it to another place. He’s a great artist.

When you do the Waiting for Columbus show at Jazzfest, do you then flex as the president of his record label and ask him what he’s doing that day?

[Laughs] I try to be careful what I ask the artists for, but he may get that text. But he’s done [tribute] shows with us in New Orleans. He was on the Neville Brothers [tribute] show. That’s when I realized the kind of power he had. He did “Fire on the Bayou,” and whoa, that was when lightning hit the building. He’s great. Not literally, lightning didn’t literally hit the theater.

Do you have any other tribute shows or tours planned?

There are a few things on the table, but it’s not solid enough to talk about. I’m sure there’ll be a couple more this year.

Do you ever get invitations to work on any of these tributes and you turn it down, because you don’t like the band?

No, because I like the challenge of it. It’s just fun to get into something new. However, I will tell you that two nights before the Lynyrd Skynyrd thing I sat there rehearsing and I thought, oh, my goodness, to play this music, man, this is really deep, complicated stuff. It’s camouflaged as this cavalier Southern rock, but there’s a whole lot of stuff going on. And I totally freaked out at about 4 am, I called up Keith Wortman. I said, “Look, there’s gotta be a Skynyrd cover band within five miles of this place,” — we were in Atlanta — “I can’t play this stuff.”

But then I woke up and I said, “All right, I’m gonna do this,” and right up to show time it was—those are really complicated songs and there are at times virtuosic bass parts, but I managed to navigate it, and then you feel real good about it when you can sink your teeth into something new and pull it off. In the end it was a proud accomplishment, but that’s one where I thought, all right, but I gotta draw a line here. I’m not good enough to play this stuff.

Have you produced any records for other artists lately?

We’re just putting finishing touches on a new Gregg Allman album that’s really good. We cut it in Muscle Shoals. It was a whole lot of fun, it was pretty much live on the floor in the Muscle Shoals tradition.

This has been in the works for a long time, right? Gregg told me about that almost two years ago.

Well, we planned this a long time and we cut it within the last year. It took a little longer to get it finished because his health has been up and down, but we got it now.

Did you put the musicians together, or was it his touring band?

Oh, it’s his touring band. They’re great, great musicians.

Last time we spoke, you told me about the Frank Sinatra album you and Bob Dylan wanted to produce: it was going to be Sinatra singing Hank Williams songs. I’m wondering what you’ve thought of Dylan’s recent albums, doing songs from the Sinatra-era songbook.

Oh, I love those records, man. He cut that downstairs at Capitol Records here, so I was able to hear some of it early on. I think he’s singing them beautifully and he’s found his own way inside of those songs, which a lot of folks don’t do. It takes a very perceptive artist to reinvent songs that are that iconic and that are associated with one guy who’s so great. But I actually love what’s Bob’s been doing, I think he sounds terrific.

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