Why?, Barbie, Tel Aviv, Israel – 12/6
With his Jewish-hipster cynicism and religion-bating lyrical obsession, there might be no better city than Tel Aviv for Yoni Wolf. The Jews for Jesus-born frontman of Ohio alt-hip hop weirdos WHY? was welcomed like a hero into a packed club in the band’s third show in Israel in about two years, wearing a bright tank top sporting an uplifting message: “High on Life.”
Among on things, life was certainly keeping the crowd lifted through WHY?s set of jittery, often lurching and surprisingly danceable hip-hop soundscapes, played with expert execution by a band including Yoni’s older brother, Josiah, on one of two drum kits.
But the center of WHY? is, and has always been, Wolf’s idiosyncratic lyrics and deadpan delivery. Whether he was rapping about minority porn or “Sucking dick from drink tickets at the free bar at my cousin’s bat mitzvah” (“Good Friday”) or atheist prayer (“These Few Presidents”), Wolf’s words weren’t just fodder for bobbing heads in Tel Aviv — the hundreds of Israelis in the club knew every word to nearly every song.
Though English may as well be a third official language in Israel (after Hebrew and Arabic), it was undeniably curious to see a room of hundreds mouthing these often complex lines in a language not their own. Citing the Hebrew spelling of God, Wolf sang, “You say I should pray that yud-hey-vav-hey would stay above me, but for all this chaos and dread, I need not one cloth on my head” in the mortality-dwelling “Kevin’s Cancer.”
WHY?s set relied heavily on fan favorite “Alopecia” from 2008, and the band’s newest release, this fall’s “Mumps, Etc.” But there was a clear divide — the newer tracks often sounded like buffers between bangers. With the exception of rapid-fire “Sod in the Seed,” Wolf’s new offerings were a bit slower, and somehow darker. Still, the vibe was hipster dance party through and through.
A Jew for Jesus turned away from religion performing in the most proudly secular city in increasingly religious Jewish state, and maybe in all of the Middle East — it’s an odd relationship to have with an audience, which is exactly why it fit WHY? For a lyricist so interested in his outsider status, the front man seemed at home. Give Matisyahu to Jerusalem; in Tel Aviv, we’ll stick with Yoni Wolf.