The Cluny, Newcastle
30 March 2011
I first became aware of The Wiyos a couple if years ago when I saw a highlights show for the Celtic Connections Festival. They played with great style and their show was very unusual. I dug around further and was impressed by what I found.
This American band - named after an old New York street gang - isn’t so well known in the UK so I was delighted to see that they were coming over on tour. Even better - I was free on the night of their most local show.
Little Miss Higgins had started the evening well and, of course, we’d had the first sighting of Seth at the very end of her set.
The Cluny (or, more specifically, the Cluny 2) is a very intimate venue. It must be hard to find a bad seat. I was fortunate to grab a central, front row seat.
The compere took to the stage and glanced at the four Wiyos. ‘Ladies and gentleman, I feel as though I’m the set for Doctor Who here...’ Geordie humour is never far away, and he continued with, ‘Whey aye for the Wiyos!’
His first comment was understandable; before us stood four people apparently plucked from various points in space and time and deposited simultaneously on the stage. From stage left, we had the impossibly tall ‘Sauerkraut’ Seth Travins with his upright bass, in full cowboy garb, complete with Stetson and big moustache. Next to him was Andy Bean on guitar (from 'The Two Man Gentleman Band' - an honorary Wiyo for this tour), dressed in an old-style wool suit and bow tie. With his hair slicked back and Clark Gable moustache intact, he was in perfect gentleman mode throughout. Founder member Michael Farkas was next, standing behind an extraordinary tree of percussion instruments, featuring bells, horns, whistles, a bicycle pump...probably even a kitchen sink if one looked hard enough. Teddy Weber completed the line-up dressed in more modern fashion than the others.
The show started with ‘Promenade’, a fairly standard song compared to what was to follow and a good opener. Vocally, the song is a duet with Michael and Teddy sharing the lines. The first thing to notice is that no two Wiyos songs are ever the same. There is never a single dull moment.
A new song, ‘Tikka Massala’, soon followed, with Andy on vocals. It’s an upbeat, funny song but played with a straight face. It was one of my favourites of the evening. In Stark contrast, 'Snowman' was another new song, a dark and obscure number described as '...a children's song for adults'.
It’s not easy knowing where to look first when watching the band in full flow. At various points in the show, Teddy was playing his guitar and drums (with a foot pedal) simultaneously. Then he’d suddenly be blasting away on a cornet or tinkling on the keyboard.
Michael’s musical skills are even harder to describe. At any given moment, he could be seen operating various branches of the tree, letting rip on the harmonica, singing through a megaphone or doing some sort of unusual little dance. Sometimes he managed several of those things at once.
Just when all of the vocal options seemed to have been exhausted, Seth stepped up to give us '17 Cars in 18 Years’, a rockabilly number about car problems.
Having Andy in the fold allowed the range of songs to be increased further, with a few numbers from The Two Man Gentleman Band. ‘Chocolate Milk’ was from the same genre as ‘Tikka Massala’.
By the now, the ‘unwell' minority which has first surfaced during the set by Little Miss Higgins had reached a rowdy peak. Michael subtly called for calm as a sow burning version of 'Summertime' started up. The song built up from a very sedentary pace until it reached a full-on, big sound conclusion. Very impressive indeed; even more so, at some point during the song, the noisy minority had left the building.
The tempo lifted again with a bullet-paced ‘I Can’t Dance’, which took us roughly to the midway point of the show. There followed a dramatic and unexpected change in direction. Teddy announced that they were going to play some songs from their forthcoming concept album, ‘...based on an old 1939 classic’, starting with a melody which is ‘...a little twisted, but you should recognise it’.
The tune took a few dark twists and turns before it suddenly became apparent that they were playing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. The mini-set of songs which followed all concerned the mystical, magical world of Oz. Readers can probably imagine how much the percussion tree was used at this time! The audience was genuinely spellbound. Even seasoned Wiyos fans were experienced brand new, highly original material. More songs are in production and the new CD should be released later this year. Teddy speculated that the title might be ‘We’re Not In Kansas Anymore’. Definitely one to watch out for.
30 minutes later, we were suddenly blown back into the real world on the heals of another complete contrast, with Seth launching straight into ’20 Flight Rock’.
The show hurtled to a conclusion with more fast numbers, with ‘Hands Off My Daughter’ being a particular highlight.
The Wiyos were on stage for a little over 100 minutes. They were the hardest working band I've seen since The Blockheads. It went by very quickly; I’m sure I’m not the only one who could have easily watched and listed to 100 more.
Pop along to the official Wiyos website to keep up to date with this fabulous band.
What we need now is the new CD and another UK tour as soon as possible. ‘Maybe next Winter’, Teddy told me during our brief chat afterwards. We'll be waiting...
Meanwhile, you may like to know that they have just released an EP called 'Foxtrots, Polkas and a Waltz', which features several songs played at The Cluny. Here's a little preview:
I had hoped to get my copy signed by all four Wiyos, but somehow ‘Sauerkraut’ Seth slipped the net. Now, just how can one miss a giant-sized, Stetson-wearing cowboy leave a room!?
Coda: During the short break between the respective appearances of Little Miss Higgins and The Wiyos, I took a quick stroll to stretch my legs. As I ascended the stairs just outside of the hall, I passed Michael Farkas who was sitting very quietly on the stairs, in isolation. We traded a half-smile and I left him in peace. It struck me as a very interesting and revealing moment; an extravagant stage performer quietly composing himself and focusing his thoughts just minutes before going out onto the stage to a full-on, 100 minute show.