May 7, 2009
Playing through the decades
The Wiyos grab from the roaring ’20s through hip-hop to find their sound
By Katie Beth Ryan firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t even bother trying to get The Wiyos’ lead singer, Parrish Ellis, to categorize his band or his audience.
“We have 18-year-olds, we have college students, we have people our age in their 30s and 40s and yuppies, we have people who were from the folk revival that were in college in the ’60s and we have grandparents,” Ellis said by phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “All people from all different walks of life and backgrounds and ethnicities and tax brackets. We have a wide appeal that way.”
Those attending The Wiyos’ (pronounced WHY-oze) May 16 performance at Studio 99 in Nashua can expect to see and hear some of the vaudeville-esque antics and blues-, ragtime- and country-infused tunes that have attracted audiences in New York and New Orleans, Dallas and Dublin. Named for a turn-of-the-century Irish street gang in New York City, the group is touring in support of its yet-to-be-released fourth CD, Broken Land Bell. On their tour of New England and Canada, however, Ellis says the group is focusing less on physical comedy and more on the rich musical legacy of the 1920s and ’30s.
“The new record that will come out in June will consist entirely of original songs, and none … have that hokum or comedy element to them,” he said. “That was more of a part of our show in the past, and occasionally [we] still do that here and there, but not as much as in the past.”
After six years on the road, the Brooklyn-based group has logged 400,000 miles and collected lots of what-were-we-thinking stories in its various adventures. The near-catastrophic breakdown of their converted tour bus outside New Orleans on their first tour five years ago yielded an impromptu crash course in that city’s music scene.
“We were forced to stay down there for longer than we were planning, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise,” Ellis said. “We stayed down there for a long time, a few weeks, playing on the streets of New Orleans and meeting great musicians and learning a lot about the local culture and musical history and the old tunes from the ’20s and ’30s. I just love that place.”
The Wiyos’ new 12-track CD features the first appearance of Teddy Weber, described by Parrish as a “multi-instrumentalist, multi-talented dude” who plays steel and regular guitar, as well as alto horn. Songs in a typical Wiyos performance usually require a stand-up bass and can include such varied instruments as a ukelele and washboard, yet Ellis says that the Wiyos’ influences aren’t limited to the heyday of blues and ragtime.
“It’s all across the spectrum of popular American music, starting in the turn of the century, from the 1900s all the way up through now. At the beginning, we listened to a lot of ’20s and ’30s swing and country blues music, ’20s and ’30s blues and swing and ragtime,” he said, struggling to kill a hornet in his Brooklyn apartment. “We all grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and we listened to lots of classic rock, The Who, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix. We listen to Radiohead and Wilco and Beck and people like that. And we listen to hip-hop, Mos Def. You can’t really confine or categorize our inspiration or influences.”
The last half-decade has been nothing if not interesting for Ellis and original Wiyos Michael Farkus and Joseph “joebass” DeJarnette, who triples as the group’s producer, engineer and bassist. Most recently, their performance at London’s Barbican Theater was captured in the BBC documentary Folk America — Hollerers, Stompers, and Old-time Ramblers.
“I felt like it wasn’t enough, ’cause we’re … such a varied and broad and expansive band in terms of our songwriting sensibilities and aesthetics,” Ellis said. “Everything we’ve studied and learned — our show is all across the spectrum in entertaining. One song will not convey that. Beyond that, it was a really amazing experience, for sure.”
When: Saturday, May 16, at 8 p.m.
Where: Studio 99, Picker Building in downtown Nashua; see www.studio99nashua.com for directions
Tickets: $15 at the door
More info: See www.thewiyos.com for more on the band, including a video of a live performance and six of their songs