Review of Don Was & Pan-Detroit Ensemble, Memorial Hall, 5/25/24

Article Contributed by Sam A. Marshall | Published on Saturday, June 8, 2024

Have you ever had one of those cocktails known as the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, a drink so overwhelming that it’s like "having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”?

Of course you only wish you could, because it’s a fictional drink that exists only in the wacky world of the satirical sci-fiction novels by the late British author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. (The closest I’ve ever come to it is my one time nearly OD’ing on Bacardi 151-proof rum way back in 1973, but, umm, that’s another story!) But good news, crew! There is a musical equivalent to that fabled drink, a brand-new, real flesh-and-blood, nine-member band called the Pan-Detroit Ensemble that will happily have the same effect on you!

Pan-Detroit Ensemble, at Memorial Hall, Cincinnati OH

I recently had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the Ensemble for the first time, at a show on their 2024 debut tour, in Cincinnati OH. (Fourth show on the tour!) And let me tell you, I was blasted, all right. And I never even touched a drink all night. Mind destroyed – body still intact, and still grooving! And, luckily, I even somehow managed to get quite a nice set of photos. (You’ll be enjoying these as you read along.)

It’s worth noting right now that the brains and thundering bass lines behind the Ensemble’s killer groove machine is none other than the renowned music industry veteran Don Was. Of course, Was is the six-time-Grammy-winning producer of albums by such artists as singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, plus current president of the jazz music label Blue Note Records, one half of the ‘90s alternative-pop band Was (not Was), and a trusty partner with guitarist Bob Weir in their now-six-year-and-running psych-Americana project The Wolf Bros. Still, even after all of this, it’s clear that papa’s got himself some brand-new grooves!

Don Was Feeling Better Than James Brown, in Cincinnati

So let me introduce you to the Pan-Detroit Ensemble, a churning polyrhythmic unit that Was had only announced a scant few months ago. In April, Grateful Web had the opportunity to chat with Was briefly about PDE during an interview about a jazz photo exhibition from Blue Note Records’ photo archive that he helped to organize with the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame, at The Boch Center in Boston. (See that full interview here:”) And, I must say – even in just a couple of short paragraphs at the end of that interview – Was fairly set the stage for what anyone might expect stylistically and repertoire-wise from PDE when they attend one of their shows.

What Was didn’t quite convey (or maybe I was quite clued in yet?) was just how eruptive and head-bustlingly contagious the grooves, textures and musical colors would be in the live show. It seems they are just something you have to experience to fully appreciate, but I will try to share some of what I witnessed at the band’s nearly two-hour, dozen-song Cincinnati show.

Pan-Detroit Ensemble, at Memorial Hall, Cincinnati OH

The blasting at PDE’s Memorial Hall show in Cincinnati started off right out of the box with “I Blew Up the United States”, an ironic, funk-fueled jam from the bassist’s‘90s alternative-dance-pop band, Was (not Was). (Not a too-frequently-played song  in the post-9/11 U.S., I’m sure.) There was a brief, spoken-word introduction to the band from an emcee who comes with the venue, but the band wasted no time proving that they were there to blow up minds, if not the entire country.

Front and center and fully in charge, lead vocalist Steffanie Christi’an – whom Was introduced as his “favorite singer in the whole world” – was both vocally and visually arresting and made a lasting impression right in those first percolating minutes. Her commanding vocals aside, she charged the mic, struck martial-arts-type poses, thrusted her arms to emphasize the refrains, and bobbed and wove around the stage in perpetual motion, as if defending her turf.

For their part, the band – complete with Was on electric stand-up bass, a three-piece horn section, a two-man drum-and-percussion team, a guitarist, a keyboardist and even a special two-night-only guest violinist – brought the hottest funk to town behind Christi’an in response to her dynamic stage presence. And in those passages when she left the stage to let the band do their work, all the members had standout moments of their own.

Pan-Detroit Ensemble in Full Instrumental Flight

“United States” proved to not be the only song that PDE borrowed from the Was (not Was) back catalogue, but Christi’an did not sing lead on every one of them. The band also went deep with two extended instrumentals following her searing opening, with the second one being a deeply textured cover of the Yusef Lateef composition “Nubian Lady,” with flute by PDE sax and woodwinds man, Dave McMurray. Notably, not only were all of PDE’s members from Detroit – as reflected in their name – but even some of the pieces, such as Lateef’s, were chosen because of their historical Detroit roots.

Don Was, Mahindi Masai & Dave McMurray

Several songs into the set, Was stepped up to rock the mic with his trippy dream-dance-rap song, “I Feel Better than James Brown”. This was a throw-back from the 1992 Was (not Was) album, “Are You Okay?” and featured Was delivering such spoken-word lines as “I went to the dentist/and told him/‘Take out my heart!’ ” When he declared victoriously, “I feel-better-nowwww/I feel better than James Brown. . .” the real pay-off was when he slammed his mic forward after asking the audience, “How do YOU feel?” The audience’s thunderous response gave him their instant answer! (Nice work there, Don!)

The three-piece horn section – consisting of trombonist Vincent Chandler, trumpeter John Douglas and woodwind man McMurray – functioned electrically as a dense pack on the tight horn arrangements and were complemented by guest violinist Gabe Witcher on their stacked harmonies. But they also each got their own spotlight moments where they took solos during extended breakouts over the layered drum-and-conga grooves. And, of course, there was multi-instrumentalist McMurray alternating between sax and flute at various points.

Pan-Detroit Ensemble, at Memorial Hall, in Cincinnati OH

The far side of the stage – where guitarist Wayne Gerard and keyboardist Luis Resto live – had its own share of fireworks, with both tight, 7th-chord funk comping from the duo but also breakout solos. In particular, with Resto – both a former member of Was (not Was) and a longtime collaborator with Eminem – the textures and tonality of his multi-modal keyboard set-up seemed at times to channel the late-‘60s/early ‘70s electric piano and synth sounds of Chick Corea and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul. Interestingly enough, although I had only seen Weather Report with bassist Jaco Pastorius a couple of times in the 1970s myself, PDE’s hard-to-nail-down World-music sound and their semi-circular line-up spread across the full stage reminded me more of Pastorius’ own latter-day jazz big band of top pros called Word of Mouth, except that Was is certainly far less egocentric than Pastorius as a bassist. Truly, at times, PDE looked and sounded almost like an orchestra of nine musicians! And Resto’s layered jazz-fusion explorations during a couple of the extended jams brought that all back in my mind.

Special PDE guest violinist Gabe Witcher

Roughly at the mid-point in the show, Was and the band took a decidedly bounding leap over the genre wall with a cover of a Hank Williams’ song, “I Ain't Got Nothin' but Time”. This languid and smoky arrangement – again featuring drop-dead lead vocals by Christi’an – recasted the bouncy 1954 Williams’ country original into a more torchy, trip-hop meets film-noir landscape, with a syncopated, kick-drum middle eight section and a spacious John Douglas trumpet lead. The smoky groove with tremolo-laden guitar fills from Wayne Gerard definitely had me thinking of Angelo Badalamenti’s bleak and mournful Twin Peaks theme song. You could just feel the desperation of unrequited love in Williams’ lyrics come through in Christi’an’s and the band’s cathartic delivery.

Luis Resto, Wayne Gerard, Steffanie Christi'an & Vincent Chandler of Pan-Detroit Ensemble

Taking advantage of a moment for a leisurely band break without an actual intermission, all of the melodic instrumentalists turned the stage over later in the show to their two-man drum-and-percussion section, helmed by drummer Jeff Canady and multi-percussionist Mahindi Masai.

As if you could even filter the two men out from the rest of the performance (and, really, who would want to?), this lengthy percussion “conversation” allowed the duo to explore their deeply intertwined percussion relationship without competition from the other musicians. As recently as two weeks before, I had attended a orchestral performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra which had used percussion extensively that night. (Always a personal highlight for me.) So with that still clearly in memory, this impressive exchange of power and instrumental textures between Canady and Masai seemed to reach a symphonic level of expression. Even at ten minutes long, it actually could have gone on much longer and we wouldn’t have minded a bit.

Jeff Canady & Mahindi Masai of Pan-Detroit Ensemble

At a couple of points during this tour-de-force performance, guitarist Gerard and keyboardist Resto returned tentatively to the right side of the stage and dropped in a few musical embellishments. But the duel between Canady and Masai continued full tilt for another couple of minutes before the full band finally came back in unison to the audience’s great appreciation. And from that point forward, there was never another break until the brief band introduction and bows before the final song of the night.

But with another 15-20 minutes of densely packed music still to follow, the show was far from over. The band – with Ms. Christi’an taking charge on lead vocals again – launched into a torrid cover of Cameo’s “Insane”, which segued without missing a beat into a third Was (not Was) song, “Wheel Me Out”. With its driving Latin pulse, this song gave trumpeter Douglas and guitarist Gerard openings for steamy solos.

John Douglas, Mahindi Masai, Jeff Canady, Don Was & Dave McMurray

This song, too, rolled right into the next and final number of the main set, a tripped-out soul-dance cover of Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street”. By this point in the show, the band and audience were of one mind and body, and PDE grooved it out hot, right to the very end, with a scintillating electric piano solo and spacy electronica fills by Resto, plus an urgent outro trombone solo by Vincent Chandler.

So, yes, in my interview with Don Was here on Grateful Web several weeks ago, he was remarkably accurate in giving us a preview of what PDE would be up to. To be perfectly honest, even though he had promised there’d be some funk, a lot of jazz and blues, and even some Dead, I couldn’t help but wonder: Would it swing? Would it sway? Would it groove? Or would it even rock? It seemed to me like an experiment that might hit gloriously on some targets and miss wildly on others. Was’ own mission statement, as he explained it to me then, was that PDE would all be handpicked, native Detroit musicians, and their music would reflect the “indigenous” artistic and musical qualities of the city. Well, after that show in which the band – with their own star-studded backgrounds in working with artists from B.B. King and Joe Henderson to Patti Smith and the Rolling Stones – nailed every target and took us into uncharted territory, consider me fully sold and hooked on the concept!

So, during his band introduction and bows to the audience after that blazing “Shakedown” finale, Was turned his head to the side at the end and mouthed something to an unseen, offstage person. He held up his index finger and you could see him nodding and mouthing the words, “Just one more. . .” Then, he turned to face us again. “Yes,” he said, smiling brightly. “We can do one more!”

Steffanie Christi'an, of Pan-Detroit Ensemble

We in the audience were mighty happy to hear that. Then Wayne Gerard led in on the unmistakably warbly Jerry Garcia tremolo-guitar intro to “Loser”, a perfectly fitting song about good luck turned bad to bring the night to a resounding close. With the band churning along behind her, Christi'an came forward to the edge of the stage, cocked her leg up on the monitor cabinet and pleaded for us to not “let that deal go down.” So with her heart-rending vocals and the band’s single-mindedly emotional delivery, I know that I had felt a kind of spiritual cleansing and a celebration of life. I can only assume that it was exactly the same for everyone else in the house!

Pan-Detroit Ensemble, at Memorial Hall, Cincinnati OH

As this summary finally goes online, the Ensemble’s nine-date debut Spring 2024 tour has already gone down. But the good news, as Was told me earlier that night, is that another round of dates is being confirmed for the fall. You most certainly will want to see, hear and groove with PDE whenever an opportunity comes near you. Maybe even more than once! So, if you want to get a taste of what we experienced in Cincinnati, you can now find a good number of clips from the tour on YouTuhe to hold you over until then. And you can follow more PDE news on Was’ website,, or check back here at in the near future. And you can be sure the mind-blasting will continue!