[19 October 2009]
You never think the thing you began as a “side project,” an “experiment,” or some such term will blow up and become the thing you’ll always be remembered for. No one thinks his or her underground experiments will be called “indefinable” and “groundbreaking” when you’re just hanging out in the basement playing around. The following may be true of Yoni Wolf, the creative lead of Berkeley-based Why?, whose in-person nonchalance seems unexpected for someone so talented, but at the same time, is just the personality to attract an audience.
Why?’s performance at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge almost seemed the epitome of their career; the performance that had all of the potential to land Why? in the nation’s most well read publications. This of course has little to do with their actual performance, but everything to do with Why?’s slow but sure rise to the top of indie buzz band lists. In 2005, Why? could be found performing in the lower half of Philly’s First Unitarian Church and other smallish venues in support of the recently released Elephant Eyelash. The crowds at these shows were miniscule, which now makes Why? one of those “I saw them when” bands. There are plenty of performers out there donning the same story, but Why?’s wholly unconventional sound and genre hopping hybrid approach to music instantly made them an acquired taste…or so we thought. Turns out that Why? had the right idea and were the antidote to the tens upon hundreds of bands who insist on emulating other bands’ work. Their popularity grew, and four years later the band is standing among screaming fans in a sold-out show in NYC. This may not daunt many of their recent fans, but to the fans that “knew them when”, it should.
Tonight’s performance was a healthy mix of new tracks from Eskimo Snow and slightly older ones from its predecessor, Alopecia. (As you may know, both albums were birthed from the same recording session, but the two collections couldn’t be more different.) The Alopecia songs held the set together, and were young enough so that the majority of fans could sing along, but old enough that fans could claim their Why? cred. Yoni Wolf entertained by dancing oddly about the stage and at times speaking to the audience about random things, things which perhaps only Yoni himself fully understood. The audience didn’t seem to mind one bit. They shouted back lyrics to Wolf as he sang them and cheered exuberantly as the accompaniment to each song began. In fact, Alopecia more or less owned the evening. Wolf made sure to cover his bases with “Fatalist Palmistry,” “The Hollows,” and “These Few Presidents,” while making sure to sneak in “Gemini (Birthday Song)” from Elephant Eyelash.
But maybe I’m a bit biased now as far as Why? is concerned, and a little dubious as to the direction Eskimo Snow will take them. The newest album is a leap into conventional song making (but not necessarily songwriting), and contains the least hip-hop of any of Why?’s albums. There is really a tangible difference in audience size after each year, and I must wonder if this fact has to do with the steady decline of hip hop in Why?’s albums and an incline in catchy anti-folk hooks. Whatever the case may be, Why? will always put on an admiral performance. Wolf’s nasal gnashing can only be described as incendiary and his delivery quite captivating. I do however, encourage more hip-hop in future performance…and not just because I’m nostalgic for 2005.