Concert Review: WHY? Answers at the Columbus Theatre

“I’m gonna play some sad bangers for you if that’s okay.”

The ever present threat of heavy snow, freezing rain or a wintry mix couldn’t prevent a hoard of music fans from packing the upstairs theatre at the Columbus Theatre Saturday night. Kentucky native Sarah Beth Tomberlin opened the night with the type of discourse you’d expect when you sit down with a blind date — acceptable amounts of friendly, a little awkward, very breathy from climbing stairs (or nerves). She tells us that the only association she has with Rhode Island is the movie Dan in Real Life and that she used to be obsessed with the “internet movie database” when she was a kid. She begins to play “Any Other Way” and then stops after a couple seconds to catch her breath and talk to the audience again.

Tomberlin released her debut album At Weddings in August of last year and if you’ve ever been one or all of these things: a lapsed Christian in your early-twenties who doubted themselves and purposely looked for love and validation in all the wrong places —  these songs are for you. If none of this resonates, you’ll appreciate her raw honesty, vulnerability and lyrical stylings that tie themselves like weights around your feet. Tomberlin mentions to us that she enjoys the water views of Rhode Island.

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She displays an endearing silly side that is not present on her studio album but connects with the crowd in person. She educates us on the Ohio River. (It’s polluted.) Her father is a pastor. She wears sweaters that provide good ventilation. She laughs through a mistake on “You Are Here,” suggests dancing like Charlie Brown after reminding us with the prettiest vocals that “to be a woman is to be in pain” on “I’m Not Scared.” “Untitled1” and “Self-Help” are played through before a weather update comes from someone in the crowd. 12 minutes before snow arrives. Great. Someone from the back shouts that her voice is beautiful. Correct. She ends her set with the gut wrenching “February.”

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“They’re songs. Someone wrote them and I like to imagine it was not me.”

Alopecia is an album that means so much to so many. Throngs of indie alternative psychedelic hip-hop heads, or maybe just people who like listening to cool stuff, knew the album was something special when they heard it back in 2008 and bought the album out of print. It is the brainchild of WHY? founder, frontman, and hero Yoni Wolf, who decided to celebrate ten years of the seminal album by releasing a handful of reissues on multiple platforms and, of course, playing the album in full on tour — a now time-honored tradition as albums age in the 2000s.

Once a primarily solo outfit, Alopecia marked WHY?’s transition to a band of dynamic multi-instrumentalists who join him on stage Saturday night. Knees for bouncing, nails for chewing, beers for drinking, the crowd energy is thick with anticipation and nervous excitement. As soon as the sounds of a dragging chain on album opener, “The Vowels Pt. 2,” hits the crowd’s ears, the crowd is locked in, held captive only by their seats, which some fans dismiss later on to dance up front.

The setlist is no surprise. WHY? plays Alopecia top to bottom and encores with “Strawberries” off of Mumps, Etc., “This Ole King” off of Moh Lhean, and “Crushed Bones” off of Elephant Eyelash. The band sounds fantastic; propulsive drum beats, simple keyboard melodies, watery bass, and other noise-making equipment I cannot indentify. Wolf doesn’t command attention from the room but is granted it regardless. At one point the entire crowd bobs their heads in unison, quietly singing along to “The Hollows,” where Wolf shares a list of anxiety-driven insecurities and paranoid observations. Inevitably, the crowd relates.

Throughout the set, Wolf asks the crowd if they have any questions. “This is how I can connect with you” he says with arms outstretched. A Q&A was not a hard sell and Wolf’s willingness to answer any question from “when did you shave your head?” (December) “what breakfast cereal do you enjoy?” (Cheerios) to “what do the songs mean to you 10 years later?” (see review title quotation) indulged every personality. Many of WHY’s fans waited a decade to hear Alopecia in full. Some have never seen the band live and are attending every convenient show they can on this leg of the tour to make up for it. Some fans in attendance were 10 in 2008 and recently found the genre-defying album through other channels becoming quick fans overnight. For some, Alopecia “changed their life.” Wolf jokes that they’ve reached the “pinnacle of their very sad and very long career.” We’re honored to be part of it.