WHY? and Astronautalis impress Rochester crowd with nimble lyrics, hip-hop beats

Review: Alt hip-hop band WHY? played a show at Rochester's Water Street Music Hall Sunday night, supported by Astronautalis and Dream Tiger.

The promise of two alternative hip-hop acts fronted by intelligent, skinny-white-dude rappers brought a crowd of young hipsters to the Water Street Music Hall in Rochester Sunday night.

WHY? and Astronautalis, with opener Dream Tiger, didn’t disappoint on the fourth show of their two month tour, bringing all the witty lyrics, interesting beats, and weird dance moves that the audience could want.

Photo: Jillian D'Onfro
Wolf showed off a variety of dance moves at Sunday's show, emphasizing his well-known awkwardness.

First up was Dream Tiger, aka Liz Wolf, aka WHY? band member, aka sister-in-law of WHY? frontman, Jonathan "Yoni" Wolf. Dream Tiger describes her music on her Facebook page as “Journeys Through Time and Space Pop,” and, indeed, her high, crooning voice paired with the creepy beats and background music created an unearthly sound. With the neon lights behind her creating a crown of color through the ends of her curly hair, Dream Tiger looked (and sounded) just as ethereal and fierce as her name predicted.

Even though she messed up and swore midway through her latest single, “A Lover’s Regret,” her performance was impressive and bewitching.

Andy Bothwell, known as Astronautalis, took the stage next, and jumped right in. A lurching, twitching, twirling live-wire of pure energy, he moved back and forth across the stage spitting lyrics at an animated crowd.

"It’s Sunday night,” he said, grinning between songs. “Ya’ll are ready to get sweaty and weird.”

And weird Bothwell’s repertoire certainly was. He rapped about the invention of the Periodic Table of Elements, getting matching tattoos in the woods, forest fires in Florida, and careening over a waterfall in a barrel to prove a point.

With the half-smile of a charming Southern gentleman (Bothwell is Floridian) and his rapid-fire wit, he already had the crowd bopping enthusiastically around several songs in.

When he asked the audience who of those present had never heard of him, a smattering of hands went up and from that point on, Bothwell seemed to play the rest of his set with even more of a sense of determination. A vein in his neck stood out thickly as he belted into the microphone. He gestured wildly with his tattooed hands. He chatted, joked and cycled between both faster and slower songs.

The highlight of the set came when he announced that he would do a freestyle rap, and began taking topic suggestions from members of the crowd, who were more than happy to keep the bizarre coming: Whale songs, Disney on Ice, Wegmans, turpentine, lesbian octopuses and the Furby apocalypse.

“Alright,” he said, “I can f--- with that.”

Long story short: He killed it. Bothwell proved himself the ultimate storyteller, weaving together a twisted tale starting with killer Furbies and ending with a nightmarish Disney on Ice spectacular. (When Asronautilis came to Funk’N’Waffles in 2011, he freestyled with the subjects Easy Bake Oven, Method Man turning forty, soap operas, Aunts on drugs, pet robots, and LL Cool J’s impending sponsorship by Chapstick. Way to keep it weird, Syracuse).

Bothwell’s candid energy and excitement was infectious, and from the reaction at the end of the set, it seemed that some new listeners had transformed into new fans.

If Astronautalis’ performance was a wide-toothed grin, then WHY? offered the crowd a smirk. Starting off the set by saying he was glad to be back “home” in Rochester, the California-raised frontman Yoni Wolf proceeded to joke about strange thrift store purchases. He raced wide-eyed through a diverse set list of old songs and those from WHY’s most recent album, Mumps Etc., which was released in October. Although the record received some negative reviews, the crowd sung loudly along to album-darling “Strawberries” and the expletive-laden “Jonathan’s Hope.”

A clear favorite though was “These Few Presidents” off WHY?’s 2008 album Alopecia, and hundreds of voices fought for the ceiling as Wolf repeated part of the song’s hook: “Even though I haven’t seen you in years/Yours is a funeral I’d fly to from anywhere.”

Wolf’s dance moves, which involved bent knees, raised hands, slow turns and a lot of elbow jabbing, were vaguely reminiscent of what you’d see at a rowdy bar mitzvah (disclaimer: I’ve never actually been to a bar mitzvah), and added to his signature faux-awkwardness.

The confessional and comic lyricism of his songs outdid his entertaining stage presence however, and when the encore ended with the song “A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under,” the crowd jumped in.

It was a night of stylized mustaches, thick-rimmed glasses, floral tops and thought-provoking music both catchy and jarring – just like the audience wanted.

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