Why? – 04.14.06

Double Door – Chicago

The show had sold out even before Anticon’s Why? was added to the bill. This made it difficult for anyone not into the Silver Jews to avoid the fate of scalpers. Shady characters milled outside the Double Door, hawking tickets underneath the elevated train tracks. They attempted to pawn them off with little luck for just about double the face value to a line of people that snaked into the alley. People were let into the club at the advertised time of 8pm, though in reality the show was scheduled to begin at 10pm. Stuck with nowhere to go, the early attendees had nothing to do but smoke and drink for two hours. As time slowly ticked away and the club began to fill, I went up and studied the scattershot collection of equipment that was spread about the stage. A drum kit sat edge to edge with a glockenspiel, while a keyboard rigged with an effects pedal sat with another half drum kit.

Finally, the lights shut off and the piped-in music stopped over the PA. For a second, it looked like the wait was over. Nobody really looked up to the still empty stage. A guy standing next to me asked me about the opener, and I spent a little while struggling to express the kind of indie/hip-hop that Why? encompasses. Originally Why? was a solo project of Yoni Wolf, ex-member of the now defunct Anticon and Mush trio cLOUDDEAD. A few years ago, they became popular, which lead the group to disassemble and focus on individual projects. Yoni returned to work under the Why? moniker, adding a backing band, and released the lush and ambitious Elephant Eyelash. I wondered to the stranger about if it would be possible to take such an expansive album and present it with a band of three.

While I was talking, Yoni Wolf walked up to the stage, still wearing the children’s backpack I saw him with during my earlier interview. While he and the rest of the band got comfortable with their instruments, local poet Thax read one of his trademark introductory poems for the band. The band began with keyboard drone that fell into the mid-tempo “Fall Saddles,” though now they presented it as a stripped-down minimalist version. It turned wonderfully bizarre with the addition of three-part harmonies between Yoni, his drummer-brother Josiah and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid, breaking down in the middle with a swirling burst of free jazz noise that gave room for Josiah Wolf to show his exceptional drumming skills. With his head rolling about his shoulders and his eyes half closed, he looked as if he were in the midst of an evangelical trance.

Next, they played the album opener “Crushed Bones,” which envelops the kind of indie-hop that can make or break a potential Why? fan. The guy who had earlier asked me about the band again tapped me on the shoulder smiling and asked, “So, which album do I buy first?” Yoni stood at the center of the trio, staring intensely off at a space somewhere above and beyond the crowd, while clearly enunciating each syllable to the words of the song. Live, they take the songs and strip them to their most basic, subtracting the warmth of production. This way each element is given space and room to breathe, magnifying the intensity. A good example of this was on the song “Yo Yo Bye Bye,” where the sullen tone of the song in combination with Yoni’s delivery makes for a completely different live experience, especially with the minimalist stark white side-light, making him look like a character in a Brechtian play. His eyes were bright as he played the mini drum kit with such ferocity that you could see chips of the drumstick flying away. His brother did double duty, deftly maneuvering the drums and glockenspiel simultaneously.

Some material from side projects was touched on, namely “American Won” from the Hymie’s Basement album Yoni did with Fog’s Andrew Broder and what I believe was “Me and the Pea Coat,” from his 2002 album as Reaching Quiet. For the former, Yoni stripped his shirt off to the cheers of the audience, and jumped in place like a boxer getting ready for a fight as he sang. Rapping the lyrics over the brooding keyboard line, he looked as if he was exorcising ghosts as he went along. Despite the age and separate influence of each song, they both played well in the context of the newer material.

“Gemini (Birthday Song),” one of the strongest songs on Elephant Eyelash, comes across just as successfully, combining beautifully intimate imagery and a pitch perfect pop melody. Like the rest of the band, guitarist Doug McDiarmid multitasked his way through the song, switching between the rolling guitar lines of the verse and the warm sound of the chorus. The lighting changed to just a cut of red across the back of the stage as Yoni convulsed while rapping the details of his past. The end of the set worked its way through a few of their more moody, slower songs. The pinnacle of the show came with the emotional album closer “Light Leaves.” During the song, I honestly just closed my eyes and took in its swirling build. The lyric’s depressing yet honest ruminations on life and death might not be straight up crowd pleasers, but the ferocity by which they’re presented allows for it to still be engaging. The cresting build of the song gave a final moment for Josiah Wolf show off his explosive drumming ability, peaking at the middle of the song with a jazzy ejaculation of skittering drums.

The set of complex and honest material played well to myself, and the few people I noticed nodding along, reciting the lyrics. For the rest of the crowd, I can expect more than a handful of converts would be made before, as Yoni put it, “the other Jews” made it to the stage.

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