Successful tribute acts must look the part as much as sound familiar and while the Spaghetti Western Orchestra pay attention to detail, their look is strangely distinctive.
It is not the outfits themselves, so much as the five members’ deathly pallor. Lacking any Clint Eastwoods, let alone a weaselly Eli Wallach, they dress as extras from the cowboy films that Ennio Morricone scored.
They also wear white make up, for the performers represent existential corpses – characters seeking a life beyond the cutting room floor, though after a brief opening explanation, this highfaluting concept is left to wither like tumbleweed. This leaves the quintet looking like the Deadwood Tiger Lilies, somewhat apt given the cabaret sensibility they bring to a show that recreates tunes indelibly marked on the popular consciousness, plus obscurities for directors other than Sergio Leone.
For those celebrated movies, the Italian composer had already underscored their dramatic tension with an ironic humour that plays in to hands of this Australian fivesome. Morricone worked to a tight budget – whip-cracks and gunshots were used to make up for limited use of a full orchestra and this group use that as a way of linking the heroic marches and incidental reveries with the sound effects of generic western scenes – bar room brawls and gun fights among them. These are the show’s true highlights, when the gang display rich inventiveness, comic nous and respect for the Foley artist’s skills – crunching cornflakes for approaching footsteps, popping open an umbrella and eviscerating a cabbage that meets a gruesome end at the close of a fight sequence.
Almost as impressively, the compact group recreate the familiar themes from A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More on a wide array of instruments and with much charm, including a bravura turn on the theremin for Once Upon A Time In The West. There is an ingenious take on ‘Chi Mai’ where they blow over beer bottles before it degenerates into a lounge jazz style with cameos on pianoforte, trumpet and vibraphone. The Orchestra’s eyebrows remain arched throughout, so they fail to capture the grand beauty that Morricone managed to instil in his compositions, notably ‘The Ecstasy Of Gold’ from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Still, following an awkward billing at the Proms last year , this slick, fast-paced show feels at home in a more intimate venue. Like a runaway stagecoach, it shows no signs of stopping.
Spaghetti Western Orchestra play Queen Elizabeth Hall until Jan 11, then tour from Feb.