When lead singer Yoni Wolf stands at the front of the stage, glowing with white light, his eyes glaring over the crowded pit with a smirk and the legs of crowd surfing twenty-something’s block your view, a few key observations bubble to the surface. For better or worse, this is not the same WHY? that I last watched at the GAMH some three years prior.
Perhaps I’m growing older (a fitting self-doubt for a WHY? show), but the crowd Thursday night was rowdy, drunk, and young. Teenager young, it seemed, which I think explains, in part, the aggressive crowd surfing during one of the many introspective ballads from 2008’s Alopecia. As a long time fan (this was my sixth time seeing the band live), if I’m caught off guard, then I can only imagine how Yoni perceives it unfolding in front of him. I noticed him give the most enthusiastic group in front a wide-eyed stare and a smile at one point, which accurately captured the extremes that guided the whole night — from amusement to bewilderment and back again.
WHY? took the stage for the first time as a six-piece, adding two new female multi-instrumentalists and back-up singers, tasked mostly with filling in the oohs and ahhs from older albums that were typically left out of the live set. For that, it was great. But on the new material for their upcoming album Mumps, etc., the back-up vocals seemed to become the primary soundscape, neutralizing the previously inventive WHY? style. Since 2005, the group has very clearly blazed its own trail from experimental hip-hop to their current indie-pop style — adding more female backing vocals, however, feels too much like the get-big-indie-playbook. I’ll reserve judgment until I hear the album in full, but it’s disappointing to fear that WHY? may have compromised their unique sound.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much — the old material sounded great and, with two hard-hitting drummers, the heaviest beats were fucking loud and added a satisfying edge to the music. It’s easy to see though why the older songs whip the crowd into a sing-along, head bobbing frenzy. Tracks like “Simon’s Dilemma” chronicle a stalking ex-lover with the clever lyricism and effortless melody that has made Yoni Wolf famous. It’s the old WHY?, the group that thrived on Yoni’s self-doubt and absolute honesty, his unflinching desire to confess about stalking women, masturbating in art exhibit showers, and hiding from friends. Most importantly, the lyrics on Alopecia and Elephant Eyelash always maintained a careful narrative within the scattershot metaphors and hipster references.
The painstakingly detailed lyrics of the older material, however, stand in sharp contrast to the newest single, “Sod in the Seed,” which reads like a catalogue of mediocre Twitter thoughts rather than any kind of actual story. Perhaps Yoni’s run out of things to say but the new songs play like an old friend talking over you and spitting out irrelevant observations, rather than the therapeutic whispers that the band used to share. Which makes sense, if you think about the crowd last night: eager to get wasted and yell along, to worship at the altar of Yoni’s observations, to crowd surf the ballads — with no subtlety in the audience, can you blame Yoni for trying to yell over the masses?
About two-thirds of the way through the show, Yoni sang a line from one of the new songs that stuck out in its foresight, as if he was consciously aware of his listeners’ doubts, as if this whole performance could be reduced to a sentence: “Preemptive nostalgia at the possible but doubtful.” Perhaps Mumps, etc. will surprise me, but I doubt it.
As for the openers, Anticon label mate Doseone avoided his useful spitfire rap style in favor of electro-tribal beats and falsetto singing, sounding something like an electronic artist in 2004 trying to predict the sound of 2010. Forward thinking then, outdated now. There were some interesting parts, but as a whole the set never outgrew its weirdo-ADD-falsetto-rant to become anything more interesting.
Touring to promote his newest album. C.A.R., Serengeti’s peaceful, inventive rap style stole the opening section of the show. He looked like someone’s much cooler older brother up there on stage, showcasing a few hilarious dance moves and changing up his lyrics to parody WHY? at one point.