LIVE REVIEW: Yoni Wolf & Serengeti in Santa Cruz

Yoni Wolf

Best known as the lead singer for the emotionally evocative, genre-defying project WHY?, Yoni Wolf’s musical journey is as long and storied as his lyrically emotive catalogue. Beginning with Apogee, a live improvisational group formed with college acquaintances Doseone, Mr. Dibbs, and his brother, Josiah Wolf, Yoni cemented relationships with collaborative partners that would last for years as those partnerships evolved. With Doseone, he founded Greenthink, which became cLOUDDEAD when the duo enlisted producer Odd Nosdom. The three of them would partner in founding Los Angeles-based record label Anticon, which, as its website so eloquently states, “…stands as much for radical hip-hop as it does for pioneering electronic music, left-field rock and outsider pop.”

Most recently though, Yoni has been busy hosting a weekly podcast called The Wandering Wolf, in which he interviews musician friends and alt-lit writers and sometimes, even his own mother. Last month he put out a mixtape called Old Dope (Rap Tape) that revisits material spanning his entire career. As a long-time Anticon devotee, and a particularly avid a WHY? fanatic, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to be a part of the “street team” he enlisted via Twitter to help promote the solo tour he planned in support of the mixtape, specifically for his stop at a well-known Santa Cruz venue The Crepe Place. The tour would feature both Yoni and rapper Serengeti, another incredible artist on Anticon’s roster.

Leading up to the show, I decorated my quaint, little Santa Cruz with promo posters, recalling tender moments with my tenth-grade crush who introduced me to WHY? via “These Few Presidents” from 2008 album Alopecia. But it was Yoni who won me over when I realized his background consisted of spoken word, drumming, and freestyle rap. Lyrical lines like “even though I haven’t seen you in years / yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere” struck me as both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and his voice, which had a very specific gritty yet soothing timbre, felt wholly original. Paired with rhythmically challenging beats that registered right in the pit of my stomach, Yoni’s genius musical compositions really had the power to bring on some serious feels. Over the years, Yoni has amassed a rather rabid following, and I strongly believe that he truly moves those who connect with his music because he allows himself to be incredibly vulnerable and honest. Many of his songs address his most intimate experiences dealing with Crohn’s disease, somehow making his trials with it seem universal – those dark thoughts that we all have, but are not quite sure how to articulate.

Now, I’ve seen WHY? a handful of times (and Serengeti once at the Echoplex in Los Angeles), so I was aware of their perfectly enthusiastic on-stage dynamics. But I really had no idea what to expect from a Yoni Wolf solo show. On May 17th, I headed to The Crepe Place, a small, intimate, and warm venue, feeling quite special since my dedicated efforts to drum up interest in the Santa Cruz set had landed me a spot on the guest list. Yoni and Serengeti casually chatted with fans by the merch table, the energy in the space mainly chill, but run through with a current of excitement.

Serengeti took to the low wooden stage, separated from the audience only by speaker monitors, and casually pressed play on his old-school iPod, proceeding to rap over his own instrumental tracks, many of which were produced by Odd Nosdam. He was a perfect combination of childish and classy as he moved to those familiar rhythms like he couldn’t control his bodily impulses, all the while sipping on a nice glass of red wine. I was fully consumed (in the best way) by his lyrical genius and practically preternatural sense of rhythm seemingly informed by improvised dance or even free jazz. The crowd’s head bobs and body sways made it clear that they were as enthralled by Serengeti as I was. His set featured some popular tracks like “Bang Em” from The Kenny Dennis LP, as well as “The Whip” from Family & Friends. Serengeti displayed a keen understanding of how to use his underlying instrumentals to create an undeniable, infectious groove, bouncing his vocal style on that foundation by manipulating his pronunciation of words and exaggerating certain verbal accents.

After Serengeti’s performance, Yoni chose to play The Dirty Projectors’ 2012 record  “Swing Lo Magellan,” a move that somehow created the most subtle and perfect transition between their two sets. As it turned out, Yoni’s performance was, in many ways, its own kind of live mixtape. One instrumental track played continuously as he gave a small bit of context before each song, placing each solidly in a timeline of his vibrant musical history. He included songs from his days with cLOUDDEAD as well as many WHY? tracks, with beats remixed by Yoni himself, as well as the likes of Boards of Canada, DNTEL, and of course, old friend Odd Nosdom. Although the set was simply Yoni alongside his computer, he has the presence and comfort on stage to create the most beautiful, thought-provoking and immersive environment.

His outrageously weird and wonderful dance moves were punctuated by intimate interactions with the audience. When someone asked where 2003 WHY? CDr Almost Live From Anna’s Cabin was recorded, Yoni responded with kindly humor, “It was recorded in Anna, my ex-girlfriend’s, cabin. . .that was an easy question.” I had to wonder if I was dreaming when I heard him interweave my name into one of his songs, as if to thank me for helping to promote the show. Being in the front row along with an eclectic group of fans, the energy was undeniably perfect. But it wasn’t just the high density of hardcore Anticon zealots like myself; undeniably, the vibe was mostly due to the mind-blowing, stomach dropping perfection resulting from both Serengeti and Yoni’s deliverance of their music. This is how you create community, build a fanbase, and give them something special to remember – by representing your truest, most authentic self.

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