Alternative hiphop meets indie rock at the rather full Bullingdon Arms tonight, where Californians WHY? are getting ready to take to the stage. The most noticeable thing at first is two drum kits facing each other on either side of the stage – though I use the term ‘drum kit’ lightly – these were more like ‘percussion kits’ with xylophones dumped on top. Either way, they made a lasting impression.
I hadn’t yet heard WHY?’s newest album Mumps, Etc., so I was hoping the band would deliver a mixed set, ideally playing earlier material from their debut, Elephant Eyelash, and the excellent Alopecia. So when they performed classics such as ‘Crushed Bones’, ‘Gemini (Birthday Song)’ and ‘The Vowels, Pt 2.’, I was more than happy. Live, the band were increasingly tight with a great sound, especially when considering how musically and lyrically-complex and dense their songs can be. The duel-drumming was definitely a highlight. Vocally, the band were beautifully in sync, particularly the three female vocalists who sounded ethereal and dreamy, contrasting perfectly with WHY?’s hip-hop sounds. Synchronised beats would seemingly, and almost effortlessly, slip into different, complex rhythms. The building drumming was also outstanding and worked perfectly with Yoni Wolf’s intense ‘sing-speaking.’
The vocals are not ‘in-your-face-west-coast-hip-hop’ style, but they do transcend the recorded versions which can at times get too “skinny-white-boys-with-guitars” indie-rock. WHY? strike a nice balance between alternative hip-hop and folk/indie-rock, resulting in a very distinctive sound. Aside from their solid signature sound, their stage presence and energy is the only thing that could warrant a small complaint. Although Wolf was jittering around a bit on stage, the band was, in general, quite still on stage (perhaps they were just channelling the nineties indie-rock slacker vibe a little bit too much) but reports from friends and fans alike say they have livened up for crowds in the past.
All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable gig and WHY? proved to be better live than on record. The Bullingdon saw a great turn-out and the crowd loved every minute. Having missed WHY? on their last trip over, I’m glad that I made it to see them in Oxford. Let’s hope they will be back again soon.