with AU and Dark, Dark, Dark
I have lived in Salt Lake City for about four years now and I still get Club Sound and In the Venue mixed up. After standing in line for about 10 minutes with girls wearing nothing more than lingerie and those Sasquatch-like furry boots, I realized I was probably in line for the rave, not the Why? show. The real line for Why?, in fact, stretched around the building and half-way down 200 S. The band had apparently been caught in a snowstorm driving here from Denver, which pushed the start time back by an hour and a half, good thing for Why? because making patrons stand alone outside a venue for over an hour for any other reason is inexcusable. Besides this minor disappointment and sore feet nothing could deter my excitement for seeing Yoni Wolf & Co on this third installment of my rollercoaster love affair with Why?
Why? always finds exceptional talent to tour with and Minneapolis natives Dark, Dark, Dark were no exception. Looking like a family of busking musicians that were plucked from some Eastern Bloc street corner, the triple-D trio consisted of a rotating arrangement of an accordion, banjo, piano and an occasional trumpet. Settling comfortably onto the small stage with an air of intimacy Dark, Dark, Dark played dirge-like laments buoyed by a swampy riverboat swing reminiscent of 16 Horsepower, Trailer Bride and Beirut. The crowd (which I will get to later) reacted with ambivalence, which is to say empty-gestured glad-handing, mild approval and the occasional head nod, which was unfortunate for a band that has such undeniable talent playing amazing songs that probably 90 % of us hadn’t heard before.
The strictly acoustic affair was blown out of the water when experimental Portlanders AU (pronounced A-you) took the stage. Multi-instrumentalist and classically trained pianist Luke Wyland and drummer Dana Valatka shyly apologized for the wait and then unabashedly transformed any of the audiences angst and anxiety waiting for the belated show into a tidal wave frenzy of pent up emotion. Wyland and Valtaka literally attacked their instruments like that kid on youtube getting a Nintendo 64, tearing into track after track of 2008’s Verbs as well as some choice cuts off of their unreleased Versions. Unrestrained improvisation (I have a natural aversion to the word jamming) blended with proper verse/chorus arrangements in a whirling pastiche of piano lines, lap strummed guitar and virtuoso drumming.
As I mentioned earlier, this was my third time seeing Why? and by this go-around my expectations were pretty mixed. The first time I ever experienced Why?’s hybrid hip-hop-indie rock was when they opened for Yo La Tengo during the Spring of 2007. Their 2008 show at The Urban Lounge was an ill-fated night, as the band did not taking the stage until one in the morning, delivered an uninspired set and made a disturbing joke about jacking off a dying raccoon that left me a little cold to the whole experience. The more straight ahead indie-rock (and hate me if you want) country-ish Eskimo Snow revitalized my affinity for Why? and I was genuinely excited and curious to see what direction these decidedly un-hip-hop songs would take live. The original trio of Why? was propped up by a touring guitarist and bassist giving a solid base to the decidedly more traditional rock direction of Eskimo Snow and allowed Doug McDiarmid to focus on piano and keyboards, which freed up vocalist Yoni Wolf to stalk the stage with mic in hand.
This new direction and dynamic is reflected in Yoni Wolf’s stage persona. The evolution from outsider hip-hop to indie rock icon has been a gradual one. Never being a traditional MC, however, when performing with cLOUDEAD and other anticon label-mates Wolf seemed comfortable wielding the mic with the swagger and bravado of a rapper. On Saturday he posed like a true indie rock singer without an instrument to occupy himself with, a little unsure of his self-made space, always moving, and gesturing more than dancing. These days Wolf is straddling an awkward line of dueling MC/singer-songwriter, standing on the stage with a mic and a handful of self-aware/self-deprecating dance moves, Wolf looked naked, forced to make overtures to his two very different audiences and self-images.
The line-in-the-sand-straddling yielded some interesting cross genre bleed over in the crowd, which is always amplified at an all-ages venue. The old backpack hip-hoppers requesting “Hymie’s Basement” and “Waterfalls” from the bar were overtaken by the high-school kids dragged along by their friends who read about Why? on Pitchfork or something. If Yoni Wolf seemed unsure of his self-image, you can imagine these poor kids. Putting their hands up and bouncing along like they were next door at the rave during cuts like “Good Friday” and “The Fall of Mr. Fifths” off Alopecia, to standing around nervously during subdued Eskimo Snow tracks “Berkley by Hearseback” and “January Twenty-Something.” I did not envy the crippling cognitive dissonance of a first time Why? listener.
Sticking mostly verbatim to Eskimo Snow and Alopecia Why? threw in a few unexpected treasures in the form of “Gemini” and “Sandollars” off the legendary Elephant Eyelash, and even went back as far as the Andrew Broder collaboration “Hymie’s Basement” for an encore. I left the show with a reaffirmation of Why?’s genius and fearless explorations into sounds that are seemingly at odds with each other. Despite the apparent lack of continuity between the two musical personalities of Yoni Wolf, this show was proof he can still captivate an audience with his wit, bone-dry jokes and sheer talent for turning a phrase. Thankfully, this time with 100% less jokes about bestiality.