Sunday 31 October 2010

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra, or, excuse me while I massacre this innocent cabbage

I think I better begin this review with a confession.  Despite the fact that I spend my life teaching and researching the United States of America, I don't think I have ever actually watched one of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns.  Other westerns yes (Rio Bravo being one of my favourites) but not one of his.  I mention this because I suspect this show has an awful lot of in jokes in it that I wasn't completely getting (judging by the hysterics of the gentleman on my right).

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra show is frankly pretty nearly indescribable.  Nevertheless, in the interests of you, our loyal readers, I shall attempt it.  If you think of something which is a cross between an episode of The Goon Show, the Frasier episode where he recreates an old-style radio drama and the Edinburgh Fringe show where the Australian band Blue Grassy Knoll played live accompaniments for Buster Keaton movies, you may approach somewhere close to this madness.

Orchestra in this case denotes five multi-tasking performers on, according to the publicity (and I think it is pretty fair), about 100 instruments ranging from the obvious (for a western) trumpet and drums, to the slightly more unusual bassoon (a lovely reminder of what a gorgeous instrument it is), to the frankly downright bizarre (sound of walking manufactured by a boot and a packet of corn flakes).  This is as much a visual as an aural spectacle.

Now, I think it is important to say that a lot of it is very funny, the big tunes are loud and exciting, and these are five very talented musicians.  But in the end, and possibly because I am not an afficionado of the spaghetti western, this is not quite a five star show.  The trouble is that the group don't seem to have quite decided whether they're celebrating the musical genius of the scores of these shows, trying to tell a spaghetti western type narrative, or making affectionate fun of the various cliches of the genre. T here is a little of all of these, but not quite enough of any one of them, so that the show ends up falling between its various stools.

Thus, all five are identified as a particular western type - “The Storyteller”, “The Young Fella”, “The Gold Smeller” and so forth.  But these designations don't really seem to match up much with their music making.  There are five musical characters on stage, but not five characters as identified by those names.  The show makes a sort of an attempt at a narrative by claiming that the orchestra is in search of Bob Robinson (which seems to have some connection with either Sergio Leone or Ennio Morricone but I am not able to say what it was).  But this is highly episodic in nature, and pretty much disappears as an idea mid way through the show.  So much of this is, as I said at the beginning, Goon Showesque, that one longs for a few non sequiteurs from Spike and the gang.

Turning to the other elements – the various devices for sound effects are superbly inventive and often very funny, but they would be so much more so if they were embedded in a narrative with some effective characters.  Sometimes one feels it is all a bit too reliant on the mere spectacle of each effect.  For example creating the sound of walking with a boot and a bowl of cornflakes is very funny, but I suspect it would work rather less well second time round when you knew it was coming.

And finally there's the music itself.  The are a host of enjoyable tunes in the course of the show, but after a time it is a little like hearing the same tune slightly varied over and over, and more problematically, I tended to feel that each tune or effect was overstaying it's welcome just that little bit.  Again, this is not an unusual problem with film music which of course is written to go in partnership with the images on screen, but it underscores the gap left by the absence of a compelling narrative.

Despite these caveats, the Spaghetti Western Orchestra make for an enjoyable evening out and are certainly worth seeing once, but I didn't come out of the auditorium with a burning desire to purchase their CD.  And the cabbage...well, you'll just have to see the show yourselves for an explanation of that one.

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