WHY's core: (left to right) Doug McDiarmid, Yoni Wolf, Josiah Wolf.
The Hype: The Berekley trio (quartet for tours) have been pushing music writers to come up with new ways to say "unclassifiable" without actually saying the word "unclassifiable" for a good while now (since '97 says Wikipedia, but no one was paying attention back then). Essentially, WHY? is the son of a rabbi rapping/yowling brilliantly repulsive, confessional narratives over a hip-hop/indie rock band. Their latest, 2009's Eskimo Snow, saw vocalist Yoni Wolf go darker than ever and the band go moodier and less boom-bappy.
WHY? never let one fact get far from our minds: Pomona was the last stop on their tour. So go out with a bang, a la one of the many suicidal characters from Wolf's lyrics, right? Nah, not really. "I didn't get much sleep last night," Wolf said towards the beginning of the show. He was tired. It showed.
That's not to say he wasn't trying to present some energy up there. In his pseudo-coke-bottle glasses and colorful, western button-down, he swayed and air-guitared and shook maracas when appropriate. But you could tell these were moves he'd done time and time before. Each fist towards the ceiling looked like a product of 10 percent enthusiasm, 15 percent showmanship, and 75 percent muscle memory.
But WHY?'s not about the visuals, anyway. The main attraction is Wolf's lyrics, and even if he didn't drool them with the quivering self-loathing you imagine when you listen to his albums, the words remained the main attraction of the show last night. He enunciated but kept his flow, allowing the audience to pick up on some lines that they may have even missed in their home listening (Example: I was never clear on what came after "two first names and an ampersand" on "These Few Presidents." Now it's so obvious: "embroidered proudly on a kitchen towel." Duh!). And so, as hoped for, it was a concert of grim, strange singalongs--the kind of show where the music could dim, the singer could turn his mic towards the crowd and the room would hiss back a line like, "Yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere."
The setlist surprised by drawing very, very lightly from Eskimo Snow and instead of being composed mostly of tracks from 2008's Alopecia. By the end of the hour-and-change show, only four Eskimo Snow songs had been played, and that includes the 1:46 intro track "These Hands." That's not much of a complaint, given that Alopecia is one of the best albums of the past decade and many fans saw Eskimo Snow as a slight step down. But on the other hand, Snow is a more pure representation of a live band's sound, with songs that move organically, almost jazz-like. Each track that they played from it turned out to be a highlight of the night, especially the show-closing whirlwind of "Into the Shadows of My Embrace," which saw drummer Josiah Wolf (Yoni's brother) work himself into an accelerating frenzy over a sputtering guitar solo and the band's trademark xylophone lattice.
That final climax nearly made you forget how heavily the band had been leaning on the considerable strength of its songs--rather than the strength of its own performance--to get through the night earlier. Getting through, that's exactly what they had been doing up to that point. Need proof? Quoth Yoni to the audience when the band returned for its encore: "We were very tired when we got on stage," he said,"and you guys have gotten us through this."
The Verdict: Serviceable at the worst moments, entertaining for the most part and electrifying occasionally, the show demonstrated that what WHY? needs at this point is some kudos (here you go!), a vacation and a batch of new material to get excited about. This was a greatest hits set that proved the band didn't think its latest album was necessarily its greatest.