The Wiyos Defy Genre, Experimenting With Old-Timey Melange
An antique hand-cranked phonograph started last Sunday evening’s performance at The Cat in the Cream, and a crackling off-speed vinyl sputtered an old clarinet melody. Three men approached the stage quietly as the recording slowed to a stop, and a trio named The Wiyos met the silence with a kicking bluegrass tune.
It was hard not to smile as the three performers sang traditional two- and three-voice bluegrass harmonies over their well-balanced acoustic sound. Announcing distaste in labeling their music, the best description they could come up with was “vaudevillian ragtime-blues hillbilly swing and old time country.” Nonetheless, the range of early 20th century American music The Wiyos bring to the table deserves such a description with their interpretations of a rich musical heritage.
Throughout the evening, The Wiyos didn’t hold back. Their light theatrics were certainly Vaudevillian, complete with leg kicks and foolish expressions. At times, all you needed to hear was the lead singer’s cheerful kazoo solos to understand what this group was all about.
Front man (and kazoo extraordinaire) Michael Farkas sang with a smooth timbre that was complemented by his impressive harmonica skills. Having taken a liking to early blues recordings, he was influenced the most by “pre-war harp players like DeFord Bailey and Noah Lewis.” Talented harp players are hard to come by in this day and age, but Farkas showed an amazing ability on the instrument.
Farkas was also particularly impressive on the souped-up washboard hung over his chest, or what is known as a “Hootenanny.” Lining the sides of his washboard was an assortment of bells, old car horns, new bike horns, and even dangling tin cups. Farkas even took his Hootenanny for a spin over solo stop-time sections that were ridiculous and captivating.
Never failing to rouse the audience even more was upright bassist Joebass’ slapping, which produced a loud and percussive thwacking that propelled the tune even further. Sitting stage left was Parrish Ellis, who shared lead vocals with Farkas while strumming a steel guitar (and, later, a ukulele) with ideas that were in great taste despite the fact that his technical facility could have allowed him to merely show-off.
The group is based in Brooklyn, NY, having been together since 2002. Farkas met Ellis while in New York, but when Ellis’ old friend Joebass from Virginia came to visit, the three turned a guest spot at a fundraiser at the widely known (and recently closed) CBGBs into a two hour set. The trio has since toured North America, engaging audiences from Carnegie Hall to national festivals to backyard pig roasts.
Featured songs included several originals that will be released on the group’s third album, which has a planned recording date for this December. At one point Joebass introduced a traditional hokum tune, a genre he attempted to describe as an old blues style that used extended sexual analogies. Of course, he let the music do most of the talking, the lyrics of which being about a lady who “quit her husband unexpectedly” and told him he had “the right key but the wrong keyhole.” This tune’s imagery was particularly fantastic.
The showstopper, however, came with the group’s rendition of Gershwin’s timeless “Summertime.” Ellis and Joebass locked up with a languorous tempo and created a dry atmosphere. The sparse guitar musings and winding bass falls kept the creativity level high while Farkas came in on top with a lonesome harp solo that cried out to the house.
“Summertime” was full of poetic gestures and came off as remarkably original, something hard to accomplish considering the popularity of the song. Ellis left his mark with his steel guitar when he took a few bars to run a line of harmonics up his fret board, drawing several awe-stricken groans from the audience.
Having derived their name from an Irish street gang (originally spelled “Whyos”) from Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1800s, The Wiyos are continuing their 2006 run with a trip to Sweden before their recording date. Their uplifting music and energetic flow show audiences a good time, and is surely the kind to break language barriers and reach international audiences. For more information, visit their website at www.TruthFaceRecordings.com/Wiyos.