Concert Review: WHY? and Serengeti at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford

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(This article contains a correction.)

WHY? singer Yoni Wolf appeared onstage around 9:15 p.m. in a shirt and tie covered by a bright green V-neck sweater, gray sweatpants and boat shoes. His hair was parted crisply to one side and he wore black-rimmed glasses. Most times he looked uncomfortable as he sang, a younger man dressed ironically in old-man garb; he waved his arms in awkward arcs like he was cursing someone whose dog just crapped on his yard, threw his head back to gaze at the ceiling when he aimed his voice toward higher notes, as though he was dealing with lower back pain. He said unflattering things about himself between songs (“Aw, man, I farted up here,” “Geez, I’m schvitzing”).

The near-capacity audience at the Wadsworth’s Aetna Theater, mostly bearded twenty-something males in flannel shirts and blazers and women with  thick, black spectacles, mid-length hair and boots, ate it all up. They knew practically every word of songs from previous WHY? releases and nodded enthusiastically at new songs, of which there were many.

They had every reason to be pleased; of all the great shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum this year (the Besnard Lakes, Xiu Xiu, the Album Leaf, Colin Stetson, Jesse Sykes, on and on), WHY? was by far the best attended, and perhaps even tops musically. The other members of the quartet (pianist/bassist/guitarist Doug McDiarmid, drummer/bassist/guitarist/older brother Josiah Wolf and vocalist/pianist/drummer Liz Hodson**; you wear down the backslash key when you write about them) played family roles to Wolf’s Archie Bunker, dressed comfortably in T-shirts and jeans, laying down a solid bed over which Wolf rapped and sang. The older Wolf played bass and drums simultaneously, and not just simple parts either; at one point, his left foot toggled up and down rapidly on the hi-hat, providing a sixteenth-note wash one a drummer usually plays with his or her right hand, while his right foot supplied the kick and his right hand alternated between plucking bass strings and hitting the snare. It wasn’t sloppy either. (Oh, and he sang harmony.)

Wolf is one of the most charismatic musicians I’ve seen in awhile. It didn’t matter much that he wore this or how self-deprecating he acted. He possesses an unlikely charisma skewers all of that. WHY?’s songwriting seems to get better, more controlled, more deeply cracked into mosaics of couplets and self-aware chord changes with every album. Their demeanor is so over-the-top humorless that it quickly comes back around to being funny. And vice-versa: the irony is so thick, it’s intimate and uplifting. Several songs soared, progressing into sing-alongs, over which Wolf brayed like a gospel barker.

Wolf’s clowning offset dark lyrical subject matter. “Even though I haven’t seen you in years,” he sang on “These Few Presidents” from 2008’s Alopecia, “yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere.” On “January Twenty Something,” from Eskimo Snow, Wolf crooned like a lounge singer: “If you called, and I didn't answer, there's a chance I'll get back to you, but if you're bald, fat, and go where my pants were, then you know I'm breeding for two.” McDiarmid repeated four-note piano figures; it’s a complex, unpredictable, short piece of music, which I guess could be said about a number of WHY? songs. They’re compact, pocket symphonies requiring repeated listenings. But they also tend to blend into one another after about a half-hour.

Chicago rapper Serengeti (David Cohn) opened the show with 45 minutes of hipster-hop accompanied by McDiarmid on piano and harmony vocals, running through tracks from his Anticon debut Family & Friends, (produced by Wolf, who also supplied backing vocals to several tracks). He pulled out a recorder (the flute-like instrument, not an electronic device) for some free-jazz blats, but mostly it was a comedic prop, like a stool he sat upon between short bursts of free-form dancing. Serengeti’s stage persona is intentionally a sort of blank-canvas everyman; it allows him to morph into the various characters of his songs, or at least empathize fully with their situations. There’s the has-been UFC fighter on “The Whip” (Serengeti turned himself into a ring announcer for a stirring climax). On “Godammit,” he became a married 29-year-old man leading a double life, dating a 17-year-old girl, meeting her father, carrying around a backpack full of post-grad books to maintain a post-grad student image. On “Long Ears,” he’s a guy so happy to have his absent, road-dog musician father back in his life that he slips into doing heroin with him. 

“Father and son time,” Serengeti rapped, eyes closed, over a mid-tempo beat. “It’s great having pops back / too big for his shoulders or a ride on my dad’s back / I’m cool with that / the first time I tried smack / he’s been doing it for years / it’s a great way to make tracks.” You have to admire the triple-meaning of that word “tracks” (literal tracks in his arms, figurative headway in his relationship with his dad, in the studio as a musician). But that’s just one reason to keep an eye on this guy. 

The show felt like a throwback to an earlier time. Everyone sat politely. Nobody seems to be taking pictures or video with smart-phones. Not sure why that was, but I liked it.

**An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Liz Hodson as Liz Wolfe.

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