What combines frenetic xylophone solos, descriptive lyrics that border on the abstract, and a lead singer who straddles the line between rapping and singing? The answer, in this case, is the question—Why? California-based band Why? is one of those bands that is hard to describe but is certainly distinctive in their sound. Their live shows help to blur these genre lines while telling stories that get your feet tapping.
The band consists of five members from Berkley, California, and is led by its lead singer Yoni Wolf, who founded it with his brother, Josiah. Their genre is almost undecipherable, but many call it a blend between indie rock and hip-hop, which makes sense given their typical rock line up (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards). The vocals, however, are in the grey area between speaking and singing, but are always performed in Yoni’s unique, nasally voice.
The first Why? album was released in 1999, but it was not until their 2005 release, Elephant Eyelash, that the band took on its full lineup of members and gained recognition. The band released Alopecia in 2008, and is currently touring to promote their latest album, Eskimo Snow, which was released on September 22nd.
Why? played a free show on September 27th at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Opening for them was Clark student and indie/alternative musician Shai Erlichman, and experimental folk band Dark Dark Dark.
The concert took place in Clark’s music venue, The Grind, a large room, with a faux-industrial design. The room, filled with about 70 20-somethings, was roomy and decorated with exposed pipes and blue lighting. Posters of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara, graffiti, and a small lounge area made the whole venue feel like a 1960s beatnik hangout, and provided an intimate setting for the show.
Why? went on at around 11pm and played a 12-song set with two encores. They opened with “January Twenty Something,” a track off their new album, but made sure to include some older classics from their last two albums. Clear, exact drumbeats were paired with hectic, fast xylophone parts that created a bed of rhythm for the other instruments. Why? has a very layered and elaborate instrumentation, and every note from every instrument meshed with each other without sounding muddy. The vocals were tight and made it clear that the unconventional and dissonant harmonies were on purpose.
Yoni moved almost seamlessly between rapping and singing—even when his voice cracked, he played it off and made it seem like it could have been part of the song. I came into the show expecting great things, but was still blown away by how meticulous and precise everything sounded. His even delivery and casual stage presence as he sang his stories was unwavering. Whether he’s singing about his health “Today after lunch I got sick and blew chunks/all over my new shoes in the lot behind Whole Foods,” or his love life “or [his bike tire] might’ve got slashed cause I was messin’ around with someone’s ex-girlfriend again,” Yoni delivers in a way that is so shameless and nonchalant that you start to wonder if the stories are or fictional.
The band seems to take their set lists seriously—dozens of requests were shouted out but none were really considered. I stood next to a young man who screamed, “PLAY ‘DARLA’” at least 20 times. Why? finally acknowledged him and even tried to play the song, but we all realized that they didn’t remember how to play it, seeing as how it was released almost ten years ago.
Aside from them ignoring requests, the band was constantly making conversation among themselves and with the audience. Yoni danced all over the stage, asked the audience questions, exchanged jokes with his brother, and even led a few sing alongs.
There’s always that moment during great concerts when it all comes together and everything seems to click into place. During “Song of the Sad Assassin,” the band and audience came together as we all screamed, “Billy the kid did what he did and he died,” over and over again.
What really caught my eye, though, was that the audience was diverse, and everyone was attentive and excited but still friendly and respectful of people’s space. As a small girl, getting pushed around at concerts is almost always a problem, and my concert woes typically extend beyond temporary deafness to include bumps and bruises, I was really taken aback by how pleasant and polite the audience and the atmosphere were—I managed to get out scratch free, and my ringing ears were just a souvenir from a great (albeit loud) night.