Nodding hipsters turn into jostling fanboys as Getintothis’ Orla Foster stocks up on new t-shirts.
Californian hip-hop/indie act WHY? have yet to acquire a significant mainstream following.
A quick glance around Manchester’s Deaf Institute, however, reveals that they have made great waves among dark-haired, bespectacled, sensitive young men. Perhaps this will be a night for nodding along softly and making a single lager last.
Drummer Josiah Wolf opens the evening with songs from his recent solo record, and looks just as comfortable nursing a guitar and singing delicate melodies as he would thrashing a drum-kit. Then, after a pleasing set from Berlin outfit I Might Be Wrong Ã¢ÂÂ who do a fine trade in cheekbones and sultry, understated tunes Ã¢ÂÂ WHY? take to the stage.
Tonight we are treated to a healthy representation of their output, and tracks from latest release Eskimo Snow are played alongside older favourites. The Vowels Pt. 2 and Yo Yo Bye Bye go down a storm, while Song Of The Sad Assassin has the audience shyly murmuring along.
It is inspiring to see the band at close range. Josiah pounds away in a fetching ‘Stickler For Rhythm’ t-shirt, at times joining in zealously with his brother Yoni‘s vocals, while in the background, bandmate Andrew Broder ploughs on, immersed in the music.
WHY?’s music is a pretty unusual entity, come to that, teetering in a grey area between tasteful ring-tone and stripped-down, menacing pulse. Structured around frontman Yoni Wolf’s spoken narratives, its only real requirement is to accompany them, but for all that, it is forceful and charismatic, a match for the intensity of the lyrics.
Meanwhile, Yoni already feels like a familiar figure, with his tales of grapefruit soap and art museums firmly lodged in the collective psyche. On stage, with a haircut not too far removed from Prince, he is captivating. He manages to combine total nonchalance with blazing energy, as he pummels the air, star jumps, jives, karate chops, and shakes a pair of maracas like there’s no tomorrow.
Occasionally he will clasp the microphone for a moment and stare out angelically at the crowd, looking for all the world as if he should be donning a bow-tie on a cruise ship Ã¢ÂÂ only to snap out of it with a grin.
His vocal delivery alters, too, according to the mood of each song. There is the deadpan, impassive drawl for moments of self-deprecation, quirkily articulated wordplay, and a more wistful register when he sings about decaying relationships.
And it works. Never was a nasal intonation more affecting than when the band play Gemini (Birthday Song), with a room full of fans singing along. It seems that WHY?’s highly intimate subject matter hasn’t stopped their music striking a chord with total strangers.
Yoni has said in interviews that to play WHY?’s earlier material, he has to retreat into a former self, and dredge up the old emotions that go with it. Despite this, his stage presence is far from mawkish, and is instead shot through with an exuberance usually only seen on puppies, or maiden aunts winning a raffle.
He knows how to win the crowd round too. After each song, he tears a strip from the set-list and places it solemnly in an audience member’s hand. These missives are just as solemnly received, at least until The Hollows when a scrum forms, and the area closest to the stage is engulfed with fists flapping wildly as they try to grab onto the souvenir.
Yoni is visibly entertained and tells them, “That’s what I’m talking about!” His laughter is infectious, and suddenly the floorboards are under siege as a previously aloof crowd join forces on what now feels like a trampoline. Anyone who tries to hold onto their pensive muso veneer is jostled aside.
WHY? close with a Hymie’s Basement number, 21st Century Pop Song, which they soar through. The crowd is elated. As the band descend from the stage, the only disappointment is that they can’t be persuaded to stay on and perform their entire discography, and maybe come out for a pint afterwards, and set up home in our bedrooms.
But you can’t have it all. Instead, there’s nothing for it but to head to the merchandise stall and stock up on T-shirts.
WHY?: Song Of The Sad Assassin