WHY? stands at an intersection of musical styles — not quite hip-hop, not quite indie rock, their sound defies easy categorization. The Museum of Contemporary Art stands at another crossroads: as a museum it must, by definition, lionize the past, but to stay relevant they must also look forward. It’s this mix of Janusian styles that helped make WHY? and the MCA perfect bedfellows for an evening of music on the MCA Stage.
Many may not even realize that there is an excellent performance venue at the MCA. Tucked around the side of the daunting front stairs, and buried below the museum proper, the MCA Stage is an intimate, nearly 300-seat auditorium. The MCA books a variety of theater, dance and film performances, along with many art-focused talks throughout the year. WHY?’s performance and Andrew Bird’s upcoming two-night set in December may signal a shift to a greater number of musical acts filling their calendar. The MCA Stage really is a treat, compared to most of Chicago’s music venues — it’s clean, has excellent sound and boasts flawless sight lines. It is, perhaps unfortunately, best suited to music on the subdued end of the spectrum, but that’s no flaw as long as the booking continues to follow suit.
This Saturday’s shows opened with performances by Chicago native and recent LA transplant Serengeti (aka David Cohn). The affable Serengeti performed a short set of his quirky and ironic hip-hop, backed only by acoustic piano and simple beats and punctuated by the occasional, terrible recorder solo (Cohn claimed his dad wouldn’t come see him “talk” unless he played an instrument). This stripped-down set up matched Serengeti’s quirky flow and his charming stage-banter and enthusiasm won over the hometown crowd.
WHY? is the brainchild of Yoni Wolf, an emcee/singer who is backed by his brother Josiah and two multi-instrumentalists. On record, Yoni Wolf half raps-half sings abstract lyrics over a swirl of keyboards, samples and hip-hop breaks. The performance at the MCA Stage was meant to be an “unplugged” performance, so they stripped the sound back to simple instrumentation: acoustic piano, strummed electric bass and percussive accents. Wolf’s voice is a make or break aspect of the WHY? sound — you either love it or hate it. In this intimate setting he sounded excellent — his voice ringing out crisply, making it easier to stumble down the winding staircases that are his obtuse but profound lyrics. The instrumentation was flawless with all members offering backing vocals and expertly recreating the often dense and complicated sound that is WHY?’s trademark. The sold-out show was performed to an appreciative crowd that hung on Wolf’s every word.
There has been much discussion of late on the MCA’s appeal to the growing millennial audience. In a slick show of cross-selling, any concert attendee could bring their ticket stub to the MCA for free admission the following week. If the MCA is really looking to hook a younger audience, booking hip, contemporary artists like WHY? and reaching out to their fans is an excellent step in that direction.