LIVE REVIEW: Yoni Wolf & Serengeti in Santa Cruz

Yoni Wolf

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.

LIVE REVIEW: Baths & Young Fathers at Bowery Ballroom

“We just announced a new EP today. This is the title track and it’s about dead people,” Will Wiesenfeld stated before launching into the darkly expansive “Ocean Death.” Contrary to the somber introduction, Wiesenfeld, better known as electronic musician Baths, was all smiles. It could be that he’s excited to release the five-track collection, a companion piece to last year’s widely praised Obsidian. Or maybe the fact that, at the age of 24, he’s selling out a headlining show Bowery Ballroom on the merits of what initially amounted to a solo bedroom recording project has something to do with his good cheer. Either way, the crowd hung on Wiesenfeld’s lush washes, thudding bass beats, and cheered in encouragement during the expectant breaks and builds. That his audience’s familiarity and excitement over this ultra-new material made it seem like he’d been playing this song for ages speaks to the resonance of Baths’ music. It underscores something universal despite the honest and unabashed references to Wiesenfeld’s personal life.

Baths’ new material is certainly in keeping with the sound of last year’s moody Obsidian. Wiesenfelds’s trademark falsetto haunts the mix like a specter, floating ghostly above churning rhythms and samples of wave noises. What words one can pick out as the lyrics loops back on themselves are at once morbid (there are references to graveyards) and grandiose (“I am the ocean”). Wiesenfeld slips easily back and forth between the serious, searching quality that lends gravity to such declarations and the warm, carefree nature he exudes between songs, thanking his fans for filling the venue “On a Friday! New York City!” when, as he goes on to note, there are so, so many options.

That dichotomy gave Wiesenfeld some hesitation when it came to presenting the follow up to 2010’s Cerulean. As a debut, Cerulean introduced Wiesenfeld as a bright, bubbly beatsmith given to bouts of romanticism. His Los Angeles address drew automatic comparisons to like-minded producers Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing, though he hadn’t really come up in any sort of scene; he’s classically trained but is also something of a savant when it came to recording his own electronic compositions, a habit he got into as early as thirteen. In many ways, Obsidian was a departure for the artist, focused on the sinister aspects of human relationships, or at the very least, bitter realism with regards to them. It’s a move that showed maturity and gained Baths plenty of accolades, but more importantly, it’s a sphere that Wiesenfeld feels absolutely confident in. His set on Friday mixed in favorites like “Lovely Bloodflow” but by and large, his more recent work dominated. Though it might seem like the heft of that material would be out o place in a live setting, it actually makes perfect sense – Obsidian (and likely the entirety of Ocean Death) is more performance-based, with a much greater emphasis on Wiesenfeld’s vocals. And the boy can certainly wail.

Baths play Bowery

In the interim between Cerulean and Obsidian, the popularity of electronic music skyrocketed. While that meant that Baths would have greater shoes to fill, it also made electronic musicians a staple at many festivals. It’s clear that Wiesenfeld is intent on rising to the challenges that both truths present. He’s done so by bringing back that human element into his electronic compositions. And far from simple sampling, DJing, or playing tracks from a laptop, Wiesenfeld recreates these pieces in their entirety while also playing his role as charismatic frontman, even if his companions on stage consist of one other performer (Morgan Greenwood of Azeda Booth) and a bevy of complicated-looking synths rather than a full band in the traditional sense. More than once, Wiesenfeld’s falsetto erupted into something more akin to screamo, his whole body trembling. These outbursts lent a personality to songs like “Phaedra,” criticized for sounding like  more wounded Postal Service. His deft renditions of the piano interludes on “No Past Lives” also served as proof of his authenticity as a true musician.

Anticon labelmates Young Fathers face the same sort of hurdles when it comes to translating their alternative hip-hop project from mixtape to stage, but they had more than enough energy to get the crowd pumped. Fronted by three MCs of eclectic backgrounds with both live and electronic drums punching up the back-up tracks, highlights of the set included the wonky stop of “Rumbling” and “Get Up” from this year’s Dead LP (the group’s debut studio recording). The Edinburgh, Scotland-based trio alternately croons and raps, the voices of members Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and ‘G’ Hastings blending and bending around the others’ as often as lead verses emerged with aggressive, intelligent delivery. Bankole had a particularly spastic strut he liked to do as the sonic pace picked up; Massaquoi kept things pretty serious, a long black trench coat enshrouding his extremely tall frame.

Young Fathers play Bowery

Both Baths and Young Fathers have some growing to do, but they’re making huge strides early on in their careers. It’s noteworthy that despite the popularity of their works in the digital realm, both are set on raising the bar when it comes to delivering their compositions in a live setting. That’s a good thing, as their tour continues throughout the next month.