Don Was wears many hats. The founder of art-rock combo Was Not Was is a record producer (favored by The Rolling Stones), a bassist for live and studio work, and president of Blue Note Records, where he conducts business barefoot. Lately, he’s playing bass with guitarist-vocalist Warren Haynes, axeman Jamey Johnson, and others on tour in a show that recreates The Band’s 1976 “Last Waltz” farewell jaunt, whose an all-star finale in San Francisco was filmed by Martin Scorsese. “Looking at it on paper, it made zero sense,” he says. “But there was a real desire out there to hear these songs performed live.”
You’re calling from your Blue Note office. How is it appointed?
The best thing in there is, I’ve got Les Paul’s console recorder – it’s pretty groovy. And I’ve got some autographed stuff up on the walls. Charles Lloyd and Ornette Coleman signed stuff, Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock, too. And I’ve got a postcard that Allen Ginsberg sent me once.
What business principles guide you now?
Well, it’s got to make you feel something. And I say that somewhat cavalierly, but I think it’s actually true. Whether I’m signing an artist to the label or agreeing to produce a record or play a gig, if it doesn’t make you feel something, then it’s probably s—- art and you should stay away.
Still, it must be nice to get word in your office that, say, Norah Jones is there to see you.
Yes. And that’s always a nice meeting. Ryan Adams is also a nice one. He’s been doing some recording downstairs, and I’ve been playing bass for him. Just like I’m doing for this “Last Waltz” thing.
How did this wild idea start?
Last year, Warren and I were looking for something new to do at JazzFest in New Orleans, and we thought we should do something for Allen Toussaint, who had just passed away. So we did his horn arrangements for “The Last Waltz,” and the band was Michael McDonald, Jamey, and Warren on vocals, and you just had to go, “Now how the hell is that going to work?” But after two shows, it took on a whole other life. So we started booking dates.
And original Band keyboardist Garth Hudson is on board for the California dates?
Yea. And he does stuff that – if you put me behind the keyboards for a thousand years – I would never come up with. His playing is so left-field and original, it’s out there, but out there with a purpose.
IF YOU GO
The Last Waltz 40 Tour
Where: Masonic, 1111 California St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. April 15
Tickets: $59.50 to $149.50