‘In truth, as much as the shapeshifting musical tapestry Wolf and the band weave, it is always his command of language that dazzles‘ – Siobhán Kane on Why?‘s gig in Whelan’s on Monday 6th May. Yoni Wolf leaps on to the stage with this, his full touring band, two sets of drums, two xylophones, guitars, keyboards, and maracas, brother Josiah, and friend Doug McDiarmid who have been part of Why?‘s DNA from the beginning.
Emerging from the understated powerhouse that is Anticon Records, Yoni Wolf has, over the last number of years, made his reputation as one of music’s most interesting figures. As part of groups like the brilliant Clouddead, and Reaching Quiet, he has made a perhaps more singular musical statement with Why?, and released four records under that guise, with the most recent being Mumps, Etc (2012).
When last Why? were here in the autumn of 2011 they played their “Acoustic Piano Tour” , which was unusual and interesting; using the grand piano as the anchor for rearranging work from Elephant Eyelash, Alopecia, and Eskimo Snow. Tonight they rearrange things again, but this time incorporate a little of their most recent record, while paying homage to their radiant past.
Wolf has always been a brilliant live performer, and tonight is no exception, as he spins around the stage, breathing a different kind of life into older work such as the wry, stirring “Simeon’s Dilemma” (perhaps the funniest song about stalking ever written), the uptempo, and “beautiful and violent” “These Few Presidents”, which has always benefited from the lyric “even though I haven’t seen you in years, yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere”, and the moody, loping “Good Friday”, which builds, with its sighing harmonies, and off-kilter guitar melody, to the lyric “and I’ll see you when the sun sets east, don’t forget me”. In truth, as much as the shapeshifting musical tapestry Wolf and the band weave, it is always his command of language that dazzles.
Newer work, from Mumps, Etc, such as “Strawberries” and “White English”, (recalling a distant ghost of reggae) benefits from the richness drawn from the five-piece band, and their steady hands act as a kind of foil for the nervy pacing of Wolf, and his stream of consciousness between songs, which is a kind of performance in itself; he is so loose and witty. Near the end of the concert, he accidentally pulls out one of the cables, and for a few moments we cannot hear his vocal; he explains it away by suggesting that his left leg has not dealt with some unappealing aspect of his past, and its dragging behind, and the sabotaging of the cable is perhaps emblematic of a kind of “insanity”, later referencing the film My Left Foot.
This kind of shambolic poetry infuses “By Torpedo or Crohn’s”, which is a hazy delight, with its elevation of harmony, and the sing-song rap Wolf does so well. Like many of Why?’s composition, it builds and builds, with each layer revealing another revelatory level. Their work remains intriguing because it is so intelligently drawn, mingling sardonic, often poetic lyrics with a careworn take on the vagaries of modern living. Their appeal is also bound up in Wolf himself, who is full of ragged enthusiasm, it is as if he has wandered onto a stage from a philosophy department, because Why?’s music has always sounded like something beyond a musical statement, it is funny and strange, searching, wonderful and brilliant; between indie rock and spoken word, alternative hip-hop, and comedy.
And by the time “The Hollows” come round with its suggestions of “aloof impermanence”, I couldn’t help but think of the late Adam Yauch – MCA – of The Beastie Boys. It is a year since he passed away, and recently a park was named in his honour. The (previously called) Palmetto Park in Brooklyn Heights, is in the area he was raised, and is where he rode his bicycle as a child, and, as Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz said recently, “like the Wu-Tang Clan, the Beastie Boys are for the children”, and perhaps Why? are too. There is a strange and comforting circularity sometimes, and perhaps the spirit of of Why? partly echoes the best of the Beastie Boys, with their reverence and irreverence for music and creativity.