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Off to See the Wizard

The Wiyos bring their traditional yet cutting-edge sound to Tucson for the first time

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Even as the Wiyos play music born from America's past, they sound fully of the moment.

Whether taking on blues, swing, Dixieland, country, hillbilly, Cajun, Tin Pan Alley or jug-band music, the members of the New York-based band use well-honed chops and dynamic songwriting to craft a sound that is traditional and cutting-edge at the same time.

"We've used all the music we like that came before us, and tried to find our own voice in it," says band-member Michael Farkas, one of the group's two primary singer-songwriters, during a recent phone interview.

"Whenever you are starting out, you try on the styles of other musicians," he says. "But I think as you become more confident as a musician, you're standing on the shoulders of others while becoming yourself."

The Wiyos will play Friday, Sept. 7, at Plaza Palomino.

The gig is the first of the fall 2012 season by presenting organization Rhythm and Roots. The series is still in action, even after the unexpected death in January of its founder, Jonathan Holden, a longtime presence in Tucson music. Susan Holden is continuing her late husband's nearly 20-year legacy of presenting high-quality concerts.

The concert also marks the first visit by the Wiyos to Tucson.

"It's funny that during all the years we have been touring, we never did anything in the Southwest," Farkas says. "We've spent most of our time in the Southeast and the Northeast, of course, because we're all from that part of the country. (We've played) a little in the Midwest, too."

A trio when it was formed about a decade ago, the group has featured up to five members for recent recordings and tours. On the current trek, the band is back to a three-piece: Farkas, who plays harmonica, accordion and percussion; singer-songwriter Teddy Weber on guitars and brass instruments; and Sauerkraut Seth Travins on bass and keyboards.

Named for a 19th-century New York street gang (the Whyos), the band has roots in the New York City and New Orleans music scenes in which its members established themselves, and they are steeped in the traditions of street music and vaudeville.

Initially a pretty straightforward Americana band, the Wiyos have branched out creatively over the course of their career, hungrily incorporating new, adventurous sounds, and echoing the depth, complexity and maturity evinced by such acts as Los Lobos, Wilco, Tom Waits and the Jayhawks.

The Wiyos independently released their sixth album, Twist, last year. It's a creative retelling of the story of The Wizard of Oz over the course of 14 songs. Farkas calls it the band's "most-ambitious and fully realized album yet."

Accompanied by ragtimey horns and barrelhouse piano, the album starts out with "Yellow Lines" and the couplet, "Last night my house came down on the witch / Now Munchkinland around here has one less bitch," and continues through epic, multipart tunes such as "Scarecrow," "Tinman," "Poppy Fields," "The Lion" and "Mother Witch." The result recalls the best albums of the 1970s in that it uses the wealth and variety of American traditional music to come off as contemporary rock 'n' roll.

Farkas says the Twist project began soon after the release of the band's last album, Broken Land Bell, in 2009. Sort of.

Choreographer and mime Nicholas Johnson, director of dance at Wichita State University (and a former faculty member at the University of Arizona), had been working on a modern-dance project called The Wiyos of Oz, which incorporated music from Broken Land Bell. He hired the band to play it live.

Thus inspired, the Wiyos headed back to the studio to create an album loosely based on the plot and characters of the classic 1939 movie.

Farkas says that creating an album inspired by Oz was both challenging and richly rewarding.

"This is a movie that most people in this country have seen, some more than others, or at least they are familiar with the aspects of it," Farkas says. "Everyone knows something about it, so to some degree, they know a little of what to expect, but you can also draw on their familiarity to work with themes and structure. And in terms of allegory and symbolism, it is an endless treasure of material."

The fact that the Wiyos release their own recordings indicates not only their independence from the major-label music industry, but also recalls homegrown music projects of the past and the DIY music careers of many of today's more-daring indie artists.

Farkas is well aware that his band would be an acquired taste for mainstream record companies. "If a label heard Twist, they'd say, 'What the fuck is this shit?'"

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Record executives have expressed similar sentiments over the years about some of the works of great musical artists such as Brian Wilson and Neil Young.

But the Wiyos never had ambitions to be a flash-in-the-pan pop product, anyway.

Farkas says: "We're in this for the long haul. You have to have a longer view. I've been playing music professionally for almost 10 years. There's no reason for me to stop at this point. We've figured out a way to keep the juice flowing."

He says he and the other members of the band have learned how to make music a part of life, rather than losing track of life while making music. In the process, Farkas left Manhattan to live with his fiancée in the Hudson River Valley, a more-peaceful setting, but still a short commute from the Big Apple. "We have definitely burned the candle at both ends in the past. But we decided about a year and half ago to wind down the full-time touring."

"It takes so much time to set up a tour and be away from home. We lost a little of our private lives in the process. Now, we stay home and go out for short trips, like this one to Tucson. It allows you to have a life, and then you end up finding out how much creative energy you have left if you're not burned out, too."

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