Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER/KOALA FOTOGRAPHY
Why? is a band that I usually appreciate most while drinking alone in some dimly lit room, curled up in a ball, leaning into masochistic tendencies I picked up as a teenager. A musical project that started out as sound collage experiment, and evolved over the years into a white-guy-rap, post-rock, indie-pop amalgam, Why? won me over with Yoni Wolf’s nasal-vocals that never shied away from taboo subjects like suicidal ideation or masturbating in the bathroom at the art museum. The authenticity of Yoni’s voice in Why?’s bizarre, genre-fluid music engendered the band with a magnetism that attracts people who feel alienated by taboos, and other people, and shopping malls, and small dogs, and you-name-it. So, on Thursday night at Union Transfer, I found myself surrounded by bespectacled middle-aged loner dudes, youthful girls wearing Brand New and Wayne’s World t-shirts, and a horde of withdrawn hipsters wearing baseball caps; all congregated at Union Transfer to hear Yoni Wolf deliver a confession of his deviant ways, his depression, his suicidal ideation couplets. This was maybe going to be a problem though, considering that Why?’s latest album Moh Lhean is in Yoni’s post-health-scare-new-appreciation-of-life voice.
Going in, I still didn’t know how I felt about hopeful Yoni, because often times when an artist finds a sense of peace, it dulls their artistic output. I wasn’t sure if this was the case with the new album, and found myself going to the show fixating on my hope that they’d play a bunch of tracks off the band’s seminal album Alopecia. It was, however, as if Yoni had anticipated that fans would feel this way, and designed a set list that presented the new material in a way that made it more accessible than it is on the record, while also satisfying the crowd’s hunger to hear favorite tracks in Yoni’s destructively-depressed voice from the past. Are you with me? Okay, allow me to take you to the stage at Union Transfer, and through the masterfully paced show that Yoni put on for those who beat down their depression, got out of bed, and made it to Union Transfer on Thursday night.
Yoni started the set with “Easy,” a song from the latest Moh Lhean that contains essential Why? themes like suicidality, and can even be read as a continuation of “Simeon’s Dilemma” from 2008’s seminal Alopecia, where Yoni is now seeing the girl he once stalked on his shitty one-gear bike through the rear window of a limousine, an expression of his improved self-esteem and renewed appreciation for life. The stage was riddled with Edison light bulbs, their glowing filaments serving as reminders of the ideas ad infinitum that permeate the atmosphere. Or maybe they were just there because they looked cool. Anyway, about halfway through the set, around the time that girl wearing the Wayne’s world t-shirt sparked her second joint, Yoni left his post behind the drum set, picked up a bass, and started playing a hand-picked selection of songs from the Why? discography. He drew heavily from Alopecia, playing the first five songs from the album, save “Good Friday,” but also sharing gems like “Strawberries” from the 2012’s critically-trashed Mumps, Etc., in which the “I am not okay” refrain of the chorus echoes one of the essential sentiments of classic Why?
Upon hearing the old tunes, the people around me started breathing easier, knowing they weren’t going to be subjected to a straight run-through of the new album. It was funny to watch the muted affects around me start to brighten with the more depressing songs, as if Yoni was working some sort of musical alchemy over the audience, interweaving the lighter, new material, in with the old, blunt depression wallows to produce a light-hearted, joyful feeling. On my walk over to the show, I had bemoaned that Union Transfer is standing room only, thinking who the fuck is going to dance at a Why? show? Well, in the beginning of the show there were, as there always is, the people who dance at any show they ever go to, like they have definitively answered that they are indeed not humans, but dancers. But by the middle of the set, Yoni’s laser focus and masterful pacing had summoned a light-hearted and fun energy that morphed my rhythmic weight-shifting into a dorky two-step, joining in with a large swath of the audience who also couldn’t help themselves. Why? closed the set with the closing track on Moh Lhean, “The Barely Blur,” a fitting denouement that shares Yoni’s newfound outlook, finding peace in life’s infinite unknowns rather than feeling destroyed by them.
After playing a great show, the band didn’t need much encouragement to return for a couple more songs. Yoni stood center stage with the rest of his band, announcing that their encore would be acoustic. The acoustic encore grounded the spectacle of the show, and created a sense of intimacy among the musicians and audience. Presented in a stripped down and bare version, the final song, “Simeon’s Dilemma” brought the show full circle, returning to the perspective of the low self-esteem, obsessive, depressed Yoni Wolf who stalked his love on “a fixie with the chopped horns turned in.” It was impressive to witness Wolf embracing his past, realizing that even if he has grown past his more debilitating neuroses, that he will always be the person he was. Yoni’s fearlessness in the way he confronts himself and then bares it all in his music was infectious on Thursday night. He put the new album in context with the older Why? material, and cultivated a sense of community in the wonky hodgepodge of alienated individuals who were able to get out of the fetal position, put on their baseball caps, and get to the show. If you went into the show as a Why? fan, there’s just no chance you didn’t walk away feeling gratified, asking yourself, wait, did I just have fun at a Why? show? Yes, yes you did. And it was awesome. — DILLON ALEXANDER