Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a group that defies the established margins of rock n’ roll recording, so I was very intrigued to experience their live performance at the Neptune Theater on Friday, January 29th. My substantial concern was how the uniquely intricate songs would translate to a live setting, and the rumors I had heard about how “they’re not all that great live” had me enter the venue with a slightly underwhelming expectation.
So the moral of this story is that you shouldn’t always trust your expectations. From the opening song to the encore, Unknown Mortal Orchestra absolutely blew me away. All elements of the equation – guitar, vocals, bass, drums, and keys – were on-point, and the translation that concerned me in the first place was a creatively successful one that had most every soul in the room grooving, moving, and approving.
UMO followed the two opening acts of the evening, Hibou and Lower Dens. Both were entertaining, but nothing too special. It was too easy to talk to your friends rather than to pay attention to either one. Lower Dens has a real potential to be interesting, but their set got to be like molasses by its end: unnervingly slow, sticky, and I’m still not really sure what it is. The final song was singer Jana Hunter singing a cappella in front of a full room of people who just wanted to dance around. While she has a very pleasing voice and an impressive range, it did not fit the situation. My suggestion to them would be to adapt their set to the setting, and I believe they’d have a more commendable performance.
After Lower Dens, the headlining act fronted by the mysteriously brilliant Ruban Nielson took the stage, and dove straight into “Like Acid Rain”: The short, catchy, sing-able, and danceable opener that introduced and established the pace of the performance. My eyes could not leave the front man, whose guitar was precariously draped upon only his front shoulder, and whose hands were so perfectly synced to his voice. The primary draw of the band for me is the guitar playing. The melodies and chords that Nielson creates on his red Fender Jag-Stang combined with his unique-for-rock-n-roll fingerpicking technique catches my ear so forcefully that I can’t stop listening. Onstage, he also utilizes his colossal pedal board that allows the guitar to obtain that signature fuzzy/psychedelic tone that I continue to associate with UMO. Some of those pedals are handmade, adding more originality to the mix.
The second tune of the set was “From The Sun”, an appropriate model of interesting the guitar lines can be, swirling to unexpected notes, and piercing different sections of the listener’s limbic system. The lyrics came in, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand/If you need to, you can get away from the sun,” and at the right moment, the band kicked it into hyper-drive. “From The Sun” perfectly exemplifies the balance of melody and groove that seems to be working like a charm for the group.
The set list implemented a fair balance of songs from all three Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums: The self-titled, II, and their latest release Multi-Love. My favorite tunes came from II, but the Multi-Love selections provided the best dancing grooves. Toward the middle of the set, the band played “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark),” which I find to be the most captivating UMO song I’ve heard so far. Every element bottled in the song comes together to craft an orchestration (previously unknown/probably mortal) that I can’t find any word to describe other than genius.
During the soft instrumental parts of the song, the band would all sink low to the ground, and when the volume went up again, everyone would pop back into the air, physically manipulating the sound.
Complementing the virtuosity of guitarist/vocalist Ruban Nielson was the band’s talent provided by drummer Riley Geare, bassist Jake Portrait, and keyboardist Quincy McCrary. McCrary performed a jazz-piano style solo during the song “FFunny FFrends” that emphasized his aptitude and old-school training on the keys. The solo lasted about six incredible minutes, all with Nielson staring straight at him from where he was sitting on the floor. All together, each member blended seamlessly with the others to establish a solid mix of instrumentations.
Other highlights of the set include “So Good at Being In Trouble” off of II, “Stage or Screen” on Multi-Love, and “Multi-Love” itself, which closed the first set before the Encore. “Mulit-Love” is a very interesting tune based on the polyamorous relationship between Nielson, his wife, and a woman code-named Laura by Pitchfork.
Here’s the performance of “Multi-Love” live on KEXP:
Nielson’s soulful voice makes the performance. He, for all intents and purposes, gets into it. He’s absolutely inspired by the music he’s generating to throw his entire body into it. I recommend seeing Unknown Mortal Orchestra next time they roll through town. It’s completely worth it, no matter what your expectations are.
JASON McCUE | Stereo-yum | KXSU Reporter