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Funnin’ Around

by Glenn Weiser on January 26, 2011

The Wiyos
Caffe Lena, Jan. 21

Gravitas? Not these guys. They have no use for it. They laugh, and the world laughs with them. More than anyone else, The Wiyos, a Hudson Valley-based trio of madcap musicians, can lay claim to the mirthful mantle of Spike Jones and His City Slickers, whose whistles, cowbells, gunshots, and Looney Tunes-like vocal effects satirized Tin Pan Alley hits and classical works during the 1940s and ’50s. Unlike Jones, though, The Wiyos, drawing on a background of string band music, jug-band blues, and swing, write much of their material, which they deliver with Vaudevillian theatricality. Last Friday it all added up to one zany show.

The band, who named themselves after the 1880s Irish street gang the Whyos, formed in New York City in 2002 and honed their entertaining skills busking there and in New Orleans. Within a few years they were asked to play the Newport Folk Festival, and from there it was on to the Kennedy Center Arts Festival, the Lincoln Center Out-Of-Doors Festival, and eventually a seven-week stint in 2009 opening for Bob Dylan. Currently the band consists of Mike Farkas on harmonica, kazoo, banjo, and washboard, Seth Travins on string bass, and former Hunger Mountain Boy Teddy Weber, who joined the band in 2007 and later replaced founding member Parrish Ellis on guitar.

The Wiyos opened with “Promenade,” an unlikely song about a Scottish dance hall back in the day. Travins swatted his bass with a drum brush, Weber fingerpicked his semi-hollow-body electric guitar, and Farkas, an adept harmonica player, sang and blew hot riffs that would have been more at home in a Chicago-style blues band. Very strange.

Weirder yet was a long medley, loosely based around the movie The Wizard of Oz, which Farkas began on harmonica with a minor-key version of “Over the Rainbow.” Fast and slow movements alternated, and among other things Frakas sang through a bullhorn and hand-cranked a siren at seemingly random intervals, the band played a disjointed version of “If I Only Had a Brain,” and Farkas, adopting a Brooklyn accent, did an impression of Burt Lahr’s famous portrayal of the Cowardly Lion.

Their only clunker was “Airport Baggage Handlers Suck,” a litany of complaints about luggage checkers. C’mon guys, you’ve opened for Dylan, now you’re jetting around to gigs other musicians would kill for, and you kvetch about this? Suck it up, already.

The opening act, the Honey Dew Drops, offered a pleasing mix of bluegrass and originals in an early country music vein. Laura Wortman’s strong lead vocals and the smooth picking and harmony singing of Kaggey Parish and Barry Lawson bode well for their musical careers. Look for the trio at the GottaGetGon Festival in Ballston Spa in May.