Monday’s crowd at the Middle East learned that the rights to judo chops and karate kicks are reserved only to those on stage. For Yoni Wolf, the curly-mohawked poet of a front man for WHY?, his moves galvanized the crowd. For the shirtless fan who tried to incite a kung fu mosh pit, he could only galvanize the bouncer. The rest of the capacity crowd, however, complied with this rule, enraptured in Wolf’s odd dancing, his Cincinnati band’s jangly indie and occasionally rap stylings, and most of all, his lush and bizarre image-driven lyrics.
After openers Josiah Wolf (Yoni’s brother and WHY?’s drummer), and the heavy ambient locals Arms and Sleepers (who projected everything from flying insects to the climactic scene in Breathless behind their set), the sweat-stained crowd yelped as WHY? took the stage, opening with “The Fall of Mr. Fifths.” From the onset, fans bobbed along to the drum and xylophone-laden track from 2008’s Alopecia and rapped with Wolf lines like, “if I remain lost and die on a cross, at least I wasn’t born in a manger.”
WHY? played a full six songs, mainly from their latest release, the somber, contemplative, yet angsty Eskimo Snow, before Wolf addressed the audience. The show was at the tail end of a tour that began back in October, when WHY? also played The Middle East. On Monday, though in a haze of over nine months of incessant travelling, Wolf and the band seemed much livelier than in October. Wolf donned a Bruins cap donated by a fan and proclaimed, “Boston, Motherfucking Massachusetts,” before dancing into “Sad Assassin.” Though one of WHY?’s most morbid songs, Wolf sparked the crowd to fist pump to the line, “I’ll suck the marrow out and rape your hollow bones.”
Squished in the bowels of the Cambridge club’s basement, the Middle East quickly became a 500-person sauna. But WHY? thrived off the heat, thrashing through a fifteen-song set, flinging sweat off their curls and fros into the crowd, and the crowd responding by ripping off their shirts and dancing their sweat to the floor. An uproarious chant of “WHY?” summoned the quintet back for a two-song encore, featuring the seven-minute lovelorn ballad “Gemini” and the “Simeon’s Dilemma,” both older marquee songs. As Wolf and co. bid Boston goodnight, the crowd, perhaps for the first time this summer, felt reluctant to exit the heat.