The new, Relentless-branded Garage is a massive improvement on the old, dank sweat-pit that sat opposite Highbury & Islington station. The venue for many a gig when I first moved to London, it’s been cleaned up to a high shine suitable for the most-demanding of bands – but Why? doesn’t suit its confines.
The Californian hip-hop-goes-folk crew, fronted by former cLOUDDEAD member Yoni Wolf – who first adopted the Why? moniker, before expanding his solo project to a full-band affair – are best received in dark, warm venues, ideally where the bar stocks only the finest reds and the most soothing scotch. They’re a band for soaking up, for sinking into; envelopment or absorption, the effect is the same either way, resulting in the most concentrated affection. The band’s third and most recent album, ‘Alopecia’, was my favourite of 2008, and their last London performance was mesmerising. But with venue graphics flashing onto a mid-room screen, and gaps in the crowd encouraging chatter, there’s little in the way of act-to-audience connection once you’re a few rows from the front.
Perhaps the Garage’s PA plays its part – it seems far too quiet, something that first becomes apparent during support act Munch Munch’s strangely subdued performance – but Wolf and company aren’t projecting particularly well. That said, even a so-so set from this live foursome is well worth the door tax, as the frontman’s lyrical loquaciousness is a treat indeed, the succession of stimulating imagery unlike any other artist in this call-it-what-you-will field. His wordplay is magical. Assuming you can hear what he’s saying, that is.
Much of the set is drawn from ‘Alopecia’, with the occasional dip into its long-play predecessor ‘Elephant Eyelash’ and an encore number from the forthcoming ‘ Eskimo Snow’ album – “The band hasn’t learnt to play it yet,” Wolf tells us, settling at the keyboard to play the one solo song of the night. When accompanied by his colleagues, the frontman’s presence isn’t nearly as dominating as many others in his position, as the gelling of the four is absolute – each is just as important as the man beside him in creating these wonderful arrangements. Percussion is playful and pointed, ripples of bass provide toe-tapping undercurrents, and the keys work squeezes itself snugly into the gaps between the rhythmic elements.
Older efforts ‘Gemini (Birthday Song)’ and ‘Rubber Traits’ – the latter, more obviously then ever before, about getting one’s end away – receive partial sing-along treatments from the faithful, while newcomers are sucked into the reverence too (at least as far back as the aforementioned screen, still flashing the Garage logo in fractured animation); of the tracks lifted from ‘Alopecia’, ‘Song Of The Sad Assassin’ has long-standing acolytes echoing the line “Billy the Kid did what he did and he died” back at the band, and ‘A Sky For Shoeing Horses Under’ is an understated affair on record that seems to have real life breathed into it in the live environment. ‘The Hollows’, comparatively, sounds massive.
Well, relatively speaking, for at no point am I convinced by the sound in this superbly slick-looking new Garage. Perhaps it’s better suited to bands with a more direct sound, with fewer nuances to trick the system; or maybe the band simply isn’t as enthused by this show as they’ve been at shows in the past. Whatever: a great band plays a more-than-okay set in a new venue with plenty of potential – sounds like a decent night out to me.