Gig Review: The Wiyos at the Cluny 2, Newcastle
What do you get if you mix a cowboy sauerkraut-manufacturer on stand-up bass, Blackadder’s Captain Darling playing a tenor guitar, an extra from Gangs of New York with a kazoo, and a cat in a beanie hat on everything else? The Wiyos think they know the answer. A collective hailing from New York, the Wiyos have been around the block several times, garnering a support slot with Bob Dylan in the process. At first listen, it’s easy to get carried away with enthusiasm – the supersweet barbershop harmonies, novelty percussion and swinging tunes could make the Wiyos the ultimate wedding band. But is it enough to satisfy a critical ear over nearly two hours?
We kick off with the YouTube-friendly “Promenade”, essentially the Wiyos’ theme tune – in one swoop demonstrating their mastery of 1920s jugband chops. Their wry sense of humour is confirmed with an ode to Glaswegian Tik-Tik-Tikka Masala whose whimsy could have been lost down the back of Brian Protheroe’s sofa circa 1974. Most of their recent EP is played: light-hearted party fare, expertly executed.
If a frontman can be defined within such a diverse collective (every member takes lead vocals on several songs), it’s Michael Farkas; with his woollen waistcoat and cap he appears freshly landed from the Five Points. Refreshingly, he is musician-without-portfolio, in charge of various obscure percussive devices, duck whistles and kazoos – banishing any risk of a dull second in the arrangements. In a gig of fine moments, surely Farkas’ crowning glory is the blues harp-led cover of Sam Cooke’s “Summertime”, which oozes its way out of the speakers with a hushed reverence which, under ordinary circumstances, would be the highlight of the gig.
However. “Snowman”, a “children’s song for grown-ups”, during which the hero’s existence is reduced to nothing more than a discarded carrot nose, signals a subtle but insistent shift of mood. Soon we are entering uncharted territory – having discarded the safety of recorded material, the band are treating us to glimpses of their freshest songs.
Oh my, and what songs they are. From out of nowhere we are hearing tales of freshly-born babies whose heads are falling off. But it’s ok, because mama has another one! The band have forgotten all they learnt about the 1920s, and suddenly remember all those Beefheart records that they listened to instead of attending college. Incredibly, a whole brass section is implied from one cornet and a blues harp. The song structures develop into snaky, devious journeys. Simultaneously tear-jerking and disturbing, this new material invokes McCartney at his most melancholy, Lennon at his most acid-inflected, and Oz in its most surreal, technicolour glory.
Then we’re out into the sunshine, back to the swing, and a lighthearted ditty about the virtues of getting high. Like an acid flashback, it’s quite possible that what just happened… well, didn’t happen.
If the new material is as good on record as it was live (and Farkas has given his personal assurance that it is, and they may be back as a five-piece to do it real justice), then, ladies and gentlemen, we may just have witnessed a world-class record being made before our very eyes.