Country artist Shelby Lynne may have been drawing a crowd twice the size at the larger, next-door Ballroom stage at the Beachland, but the party was at the show in the Tavern. Or at least I wanted it to be, but after grabbing a beer and listening to two guys behind me hold a conversation that sounded eerily familiar to the dudes on Weezer's "Sweater Song," ("Hey man, it's been forever! How have you been?" "Alright.") and realizing the room wasn't even half-full, I got worried. Then one of the guys behind me described Why? to the other guy as, "used to be R&B, now indie" and I got really worried.
The poor description of Why? became clear, however, when one of the duo took the stage to play guitar in local openers Lazy Susan. Yeah, that's right, he wasn't there by choice. And while I spent most of their set trying to come up with bad jokes that involved their name in order to describe them for this review ("Susan had some company thanks to this band's songwriting"...zing!), the band shined -- very momentarily -- when they ditched their bar-band-with-mid-`90s-power-voiced-singer sound and aped the Strokes with all their might for a song or two.
Local opener number two was the Muttering Retreats, a trio whose sound and instrument switching revealed a serious Magnetic Fields fetish. Unfortunately, they never quite hit on the precise songwriting or cleverness of that band, and instead played a set of cutesy synth-spiced up-tempo pop and electronic-beat backed numbers that all seemed a bit lacking.
A funny thing happened after the Muttering Retreats started packing, however. There was a mad dash (okay, maybe a persistent shuffle) made towards the front of the room by most of the people still left in the bar. The result was that an interesting cast of characters that I didn't even realize had been in the room soon surrounded the stage. There was the dude in an Anticon tee, the punk kid decked out in a studded belt and Dickies shorts, the laid-back hipsters sipping on imports and the hip-hop guy with short dreads and a huge camo hoody. Maybe this was where the party was after all.
Why?'s records feature a large array of sounds, so it was surprising to see only four guys take the stage with such a limited amount of equipment. After the band rocked songs like "Rubber Traits" and "Crushed Bones," however, it became clear that they had found ways to cover all their bases. Samples and loops were often replaced by backing vocals while the drummer not only kept the beat, but also banged out melodies on a xylophone (vibraphone?) he had in place of a rack tom. This "make do" style may have been best exhibited on "The Hollows." The drummer played bass and kept time on the kick drum, while frontman Yoni Wolf filled in the beat with a ride cymbal and snare placed in front of him and the remaining two members held down the song with some eerie piano and palm-muted guitar. Other songs like "Yo Yo Bye Bye," "Gemini (Birthday Song)," "Good Friday" and "These Few Presidents" may have taken on a whole new tone in the live setting thanks to a lack of production and a more sparse presentation, but damn did they sound good.
While recorded Why? reveal their love for hip-hop and ambiance via a lush, programmed collage of sounds, live they reveal that they are skilled and exact musicians who don't need to rely on samples or gimmicks to get a room moving. Their excellent and divergent live set may have made a band that is already difficult to classify even harder to peg, but at least it finally confirmed for me that the party was in the Tavern that night.