C’mon, Watusies me

Aug 22, 2007 at 12:00 am

The first time I ever saw Dan Mulholland, he was strolling through the parking lot at Ann Arbor's Kerrytown shopping district, his long, rangy limbs swinging in a locomotion that suggested Ike Turner or Mick Jagger. It was the early '90s, and although there were plenty of 40-ish white dudes walking around town that day, none of them had what Dan had — the natural body language that broadcasts, in no uncertain terms: This guy possesses secret rock 'n' roll knowledge. I was smitten.

It didn't surprise me at all to learn over the coming months and years that Dan was an expert dancer, a snappy dresser, an eccentric connoisseur of obscure 45s and, above all, a fabulously flamboyant singer and frontman.

Mulholland, now 58, has been fronting Michigan rock 'n' roll bands for more than 40 years. Starting in Harrisville with the Raven as a teenager (friends tell me he used to spraypaint his pants silver — while he was still wearing them) all the way up to his most recent ensemble, the metro Detroit- and Toledo-based Jive-A-Tones, the maraca-abusing shouter has never failed to get a reaction. And although he's left a slew of memorable regional acts in his wake — the Urbations, the Navarones and the Boomerangs among them — the Watusies delivered an especially notable rock 'n' roll clobber during their brief run.

Debuting in 1984 at the notorious Joe's Star Lounge in Ann Arbor, the core lineup of the Watusies was Mulholland, guitarist Chris Casello, second guitarist Drew Howard, keyboardist Freddie Klein, drummer Bill Newland and bassist Oni Werth. All stellar musicians who have continued to play professionally since the band broke up in 1986, the six haven't shared a stage together in more than 20 years. That will all change this Saturday, when Ann Arbor's Blind Pig presents the reunited Watusies for a one-night rock 'n' roll revival.

Even though the band's initial stand was fleeting, it was memorable. They played loads of shows in the Ann Arbor-Detroit area during their reign, winning a loyal local following. "They spilled their guts onstage every single night; it was that simple," says former Ann Arborite and fan P.J. Ryder. "I've always thought that Danny Mulholland was the best underground performer I've ever seen. When they hit the stage, it was just nonstop power and energy. Dan wasn't going to talk to you and he wasn't going to be nice to you. He was just going to rock your socks off."

Mulholland's memory is a little fuzzier when it comes to the Watusies. "They tell me the band was only around for two years," he says from his Ypsilanti home. "It felt like four (laughs)."

He's joking, of course. According to the singer, although the band was not immune to the occasional creative conflict, the music itself — a mix of covers by the likes of Elmore James, the Flamin' Groovies, T. Rex and others, along with the band's own originals — kept them grounded.

"We fought sometimes," he says. "But the band was pretty healthy. There weren't a lot of pout-fests. I would pout sometimes, because I wanted them to do a bunch of weird stuff. But we got along real good."

The band's repertoire, which is based on a healthy diet of soul, blues and rock 'n' roll (basically the contents of Mulholland's extensive record collection) is like a high-test musical history lesson.

"In the early days, the band used to talk about 'our sound,'" says Mulholland. "I used to say, 'We don't have a sound — we're into great music.' They were like, 'This old motherfucker knows something!' The first gig we did was sold out, so they were like, 'Let's stick with this guy.'"

The Watusies are still into great music. And, according to Mulholland, the goal of the reunion is to have some fun and "blow the roof off the place." But don't expect him to change his game just because 20 years have passed. "I don't feel like I have to do anything to keep up with the kids," he says. "I've got so much invested in this, artistically, I don't have to worry about the latest trends.

"I don't need a hip-hop education to be legit."


Saturday, Aug. 25, with Jawbone, at the Blind Pig, 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555.

Wendy Case is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send letters to [email protected]