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It’s been just under a year since indie hip-hop band Why? came to Boston. The last time the group was here, fans were treated to an intimate show with an “unplugged” vibe – a special treat, for sure. Their stop at The Middle East last night, however, gave fans a chance to throw their hands in the air once again and join in rapping with singer Yoni Wolf’s peculiar voice at full volume. With a line wrapped around the outside of the venue before doors even opened, it would be hard to argue that fans weren’t psyched for the night to begin.
Having unexpected openers only seems natural for such a quirky headlining band. Chicago rapper Serengeti was the first to take the stage along with DJ Thanksgiving Brown. The crowd cheered for him right from the first song and bobbed along, turning to smile at their neighbors even though none of us knew one another. From his smooth dance moves to his tilted baseball cap, Serengeti had the crowd on-board for his whole set. Experimental rapper Doseone came on after dressed in a neon pink shirt and a tuxedo coat. His brief “covers” (like “who let the cat in”), jabs at the audience (he half-rapped a line at a girl to get off her smartphone), and legs that squirmed like a centipede’s all made for an interesting set, to say the least.
Nothing compared to the performance Why? gave, although that’s not surprising in the least. Joined onstage by additional band members to create a fuller sound –and most notably fuller harmonies — this time, Why?’s older tracks were raised to new levels by having six musicians instead of the normal four (Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf, Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and Liz Hodson).
A calm version of “Dirty Glass” started off their set before Yoni walked onstage to “Good Friday” as well as a thunderous cheer from the crowd. He then took the setlist out of his pocket, unfolded it, and set it down by his feet, all with a straight face that taunted the crowd.
“Strawberries”, a track off their upcoming album Mumps, Etc. which will be released October 9th, featured happy-camper whistles that each band member layered over the others’. The stacked notes tugged some dancing both from Yoni and the audience. With new tracks that featured gentle melodies and heavy drumming, and Mumps, Etc.‘s opener ”Jonathan’s Hope”, fans kept the buzz bubbling but the volume low so as to hear the new songs they’ll finally own in a few weeks.
One of my favorite parts of the night was the setup: a semi-circle of the group’s instruments — a drum set and xylophone, keyboard, guitar, bass, and second drum set with a xylophone — that left an open stage for Yoni to pace and sketch shapes in the air as he bounced between rapping and singing their eccentric lyrics.
Why? have a unique sound due to their style, combination of genres, and Yoni’s squeaky-yet-low voice, a voice that sounds excellent live. They have an allure about them that pulses live; Yoni’s neutral face isn’t an expression he puts on because he’s too cool, but rather because their sound and style comes so easily.
The singer did show the crowd some love, though. It was during ”These Few Presidents” that we first saw him smil. He turned the microphone to the toppling audience with a grin as we sang the last line to which he quietly said thanks. The music break in ”Brook and Waxing” gave him the chance to stand still and stiffly outline shapes in the air from head to toe, a mustached mime all dressed in stripes.
2008′s Alopecia was unquestionably the album audience members held closest to their hearts. From the first few notes of any of its songs (from “The Hollows” to “The Vowels, Pt. 2″), the blob of a crowd would squish together, falling over one another to throw their hands at Yoni Wolf as they sang each word to his neutral face, at times so vehement that it begged him to let a smile peak out.
If you broke your eyes away from Yoni, it was clear how talented the rest of the group was, particularly the two drummers during “Crushed Bones”. Hearing multiple bass drums pound live electrified Why?’s recorded sound.
Why? left the crowd pleased with, as he put it, “a good mix of oldies and new ones.” Their set stopped with “Simeon’s Dilemma” before an encore that included CLOUDDEAD’s “Bike #2″ (where Doseone toasted microphones with Yoni and sang the melody), an emotional “A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under”, and a snapshot of the audience with Yoni in the middle. Sure, their concert last year may have been intimate and unique, but Boston had a show to remember at The Middle East last night with loud, layered, and loving songs that happily kept the audience past midnight.