Way Out West at The New County Hotel - Saturday 13th August 2011 (Gig Review)

When it was announced that The New County Hotel and BWM Promotions would be playing host to Way Out West, I did what any researcher of the internet age would do: I googled them.  The top three search results failed to hit upon my subject, reading as follows: Way Out West (a Swedish Music Festival, which, coincidentally, was taking place that very weekend), Way Out West (a UK progressive house and trance band who rose to fame in the nineties) and Way Out West (a 1937 film starring Laurel & Hardy).  Intriguing as they all were, I continued in search of my Way Out West with an adapted Google search: Way Out West (omit results that include: Trance, House, Göteborg, Sweden, Another, Fine, Mess).  I felt lucky.     

For purpose of disambiguation, the Way Out West in question are a Gloucester-based ensemble who between them employ the sounds of two accordions, a fiddle, a guitar, a ukulele and a banjo to rework and reinvent popular songs.  To say that Way Out West, who consists of Kathryn Wheeler (vocals, accordion, fiddle), Jon Hoyle (vocals, guitar, ukulele, banjo) and Pat Roberts (vocals, accordion), are simply a covers band would be to overlook their USP, and to label them in such general terms would do them a great disservice.  The three musicians are in the industry of taking an established song, dusting it down, dressing it up and turning a mirror to it.  And the big reveal always manages to raise a smile.

I get to The New County Hotel a little early, giving me time to chip into a pint of Kronenbourg and casually observe the band from the comfort of the bar.  Watching them set up in the plush surroundings of The New County’s bar proves therapeutic: the trio exude an air of likeability, arranging themselves in a laidback, composed, efficient fashion.  They exchange glances and act on the other’s silent instruction.   Even their sound technician, who goes soundlessly about his work, seems at ease and amicable.  Like an X Factor contestant at the open auditions, a sense of the coming performance is often cast from the viewer’s intuition.  In this instance, it was clear before the first note was played that Way Out West would prove to be something a bit special.  Indeed, the opening song, The Dandy Warhols’ Bohemian Like You set the tone for the rest of the evening.  The sprightly sound of Wheeler and Roberts’ accordions were perfectly complemented by Hoyle’s guitar, the overall sound proving suitably bohemian and dandy in style.  But while The Dandy Warhols hold a place in pop history as one hit wonders, Way Out West cranked the hit machine up to eleven and refused to relent for the rest of the evening.

You must err on the side of caution when you go and see a band as accomplished as Way Out West.  Though their skills in musical makeovers never fail to entertain, this comedy is sourced from a very measured deception (however, like the best magic tricks, this can often be the best kind).  For example, half way through the night this reviewer began singing along to the first few versus of a song that, courtesy of reinterpretation, had undergone not so much a makeover as a face transplant.  My involvement in the song came to an abrupt end when the band’s harmony of “It’s raining men, hallelujah!” revealed its true identity, stemming any further involvement I would have in the song and puncturing the air around me with a shrinking self-consciousness.  Yet this is testament to the quality of their covers.  Repackage it with ribbon bows or strip it down to its bare bones and reveal it for its simplicity.  Or in this particular case, make it sound like a song a man can sing along to with a beer in his hand.  It’s what they do.    

Needless to say, the time it takes for a song to be recognised is wholly dependent on the individual’s familiarity with the original. Some songs are recognised straight away, while others went unknown or - possibly most entertaining of all - lay unsolved until the chorus.  Such was the audience’s positivity towards the band’s performance that clues could often be drawn from their response to the songs themselves.  Earlier that evening, the band’s promoter pointed out three tattoo artists whom had been invited from the parlour across the street, and it wasn’t until they started singing passionately along to the sixth song in the set that I realised the likelihood of punk’s part in Way Out West’s repertoire, or at least the band’s own unique interpretation of it.

The song was The Sex Pistol’s Pretty Vacant and Wheeler, who had up until that point played alongside Roberts on accordion, switched to the fiddle for the punk number.  Well, why not?  Everything else they had played had turned to gold.  It was a bold move, but one that had a great payoff.  But don’t ask me: ask those tattooists who responded to it as it had been adapted to form their own personal national anthem.  It was stirring for one in particular, who I’m convinced would have stood as a mark of respect if he had been seated.  A similar country feel permeated, rather astonishingly, through Prince’s “You Don’t Have To Be Rich.”   Indeed, it was spun with such an effortless country sound that it was a wonder how the original survived without it.  I could almost taste the wheat stalk as I chewed it over.

Catering for all musical tastes and representing five decades of music, Way Out West’s twenty-six song set gave fresh voice to everyone from The Kinks to The Pussycat Dolls and from Leonard Cohen to Lady Gaga.  Their songs stand as wildly inventive, genre-hopping anachronisms, mixing and matching pop history and asking questions that only seem relevant when they ask it.  What if Leonard Cohen had a Cajun, Country & Western side?  What if Kirsty MacColl’s In These Shoes had been more a commentary on shoe shopping?  What if The Automatic’s Monster had a baroque-style interlude?  What if Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine had been written and performed by Axl Rose, the great Music Hall phenomenon?  What would it sound like if the Pussycat’s Dolls’ own question, Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me? had been posed by the Queen?  The audience gets drawn into this wonderful world of an alternative pop history through songs that are sublimely reconfigured.  It may be left to the audience to answer the questions laid down in song, but on most occasions – and certainly in this case - the delight came not in the answer, but the journey Way Out West took us on in search of that answer.

-- Tom Wiggins (www.thesensitivebore.blogspot.com)

Set List

Bohemian Like You – The Dandy Warhols
Don’t You Want Me – Human League
Tower of Song – Leonard Cohen
Lola – The Kinks
Squeeze – The Who
Pretty Vacant – The Sex Pistols
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls
Monster – The Automatic
Is She Really Going Out With Him? – Joe Jackson
In these Shoes – Kirsty MacColl
Boys Keep Swinging – David Bowie
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Poker Face – Lady Gaga
Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
Not Fair – Lily Allen
Kiss – Prince
Only You – Yazoo
20th Century Boy – T. Rex
It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls (audience request)
Lithium – Nirvana
Tu vuò fà l'americano - Renato Carosone
House of Fun - Madness
Hit Me Baby One More Time – Britney Spears
Don’t Cha – Pussycat Dolls
Common People – Pulp



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