mon 24/06/2024

WHY?, Duke of York's Picture House, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

WHY?, Duke of York's Picture House, Brighton

WHY?, Duke of York's Picture House, Brighton

US alt-hop odd-folk indie-weirdo oddballs prove charming and unexpectedly popular

WHY?, minus Liz Wolf, looking curious

Ah, the Duke of York’s Picture House, the oldest consistently operating purpose-built cinema in the country. It’s a beautiful venue, just over a century old, and almost too comfortable. It’s been jazzed up a few times over the decades and, tonight, bathed in red light, wears its history with lazy insouciance, merging it with the current interior design’s burlesque Art Deco spin.

My seat is at the back of the balcony, plush and comfortable, with a little shelf where I place my salted popcorn and horrible pear cider (the latter, a mistake). Mostly the Duke of York’s is still a cinema but they have occasional acoustic nights such as this and it seems almost purpose built for them, lending any act an easy music-hall charm. There’s a sense it would be possible to enjoy almost any act here, that the inclusive ambience and warm acoustics will make up for all manner of musical sins. Happily, in the case of WHY?, they don’t have to.

Trying to explain WHY? – aka Yoni Wolf and his band - to my pal who comes to the gig is tricky. Wolf’s background is in hip hop but of the most abstract and strange kind. Born in Ohio, but primarily associated with Californian alt-hop label collective Anticon, Wolf first came to prominence as a member of the ground-breaking but now defunct cLOUDDEAD, an outfit that completely rewrote the book as to what hip hop could be and raised possibilities that have still not been fully explored. His own music as WHY?, over the course of four albums, has been less electronic and more approachable. From this Brighton show it's clear he has a rabid fanbase who know every word. Well, they would know every word if half the songs in the set were not brand new and as yet unnamed – although this turns out to be hardly an issue.

Yoni Wolf appears on stage with his brother Josiah and Josiah’s wife Liz and Doug McDiarmid, who occasionally swap instruments, providing a musical backdrop of piano, guitar, bass and drums. Yoni is clad in jeans and a jumper with shirt-tails popping out from underneath, his hair smeared to his head. He sips at a cup of tea throughout. His look is geek-chic writ large. Musically the trio create a jangly indie-pop sound but informed by Byrdsian psychedelia, abstract jazz, hip hop, and topped with Yoni’s extraordinary wordplay that mixes stream of consciousness with everyday observation and emotional insight, all nasally delivered with a sheen of pithy surreal humour. One of the songs I recognise is “One Rose” which has some wonderful lines in it: “A man should die gaunt and not bloated and overdone/ There should be new words hidden in the shadows on his face and, like a wine glass, in a perfect pitch, he breaks”. But many of his songs are much more random and whacky. One minute he’s telling us, “There are no indisputable histories of Christmas,” the next he’s singing about “the dying wish of a dinosaur’s dish”.

The sound WHY? make is lovely, harmonic, slightly whiney, the latter quality giving it an edge so it doesn’t ever grow too cosy. They’re also funny between songs, with Yoni asking if we have “ranch dressing” in Brighton, then mocking the Brits for enjoying Worcestershire sauce. “Hey, that’s racist,” says Liz Wolf. The audience is preposterously partisan. If Yoni Wolf tapped his microphone and said, “One, two, one, two,” they might well have clasped their hands together, giggled and wondered aloud at how deliciously whimsical it all was. That is a mean-spirited quibble, however, for WHY? are an oddball turn who deserve wider exposure and, indeed, they’re already a bigger cult than I’d realised. The Duke of York’s is sold out and when WHY? play songs people know such “The Hollows”, many sing along. These are not sing-along lyrics, either, so multiple voices end up shouting out, “I curse the last six months I’ve been hiding behind a moustache”, and similarly opaque lines. Then, suddenly, it’s over, a short set, careful and clever, cagily theatrical in its way. Yoni thanks us profusely and leads his team off stage and the audience files out into the Brighton night.

The Duke of York’s staff clear away our detritus ready for the following day’s lunchtime showing of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Watch WHY? play "The Hollows" live in Berlin in 2008


The trio create a jangly indie-pop sound but informed by Byrds-ian psychedelia, abstract jazz and hip hop


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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