On Thursday, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) played a sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom with Foxygen, and Wampire, their fellow Portland denizens. Wampire’s opening pentatonic riffs set a clear tone for the night: this was going to be an old school affair. Those of us who know Wampire from their more dream pop-leaning single “Hearse” may have been taken off guard by the half hour blues jam that followed, but it set an appropriate tone for their neoclassicist bill-mates. Reverence for the late ‘60s/early ‘70s aesthetics is the bedrock of Foxygen and UMO’s respective sounds, after all.
But it’s all too easy to get caught up in rock geekery when discussing their records. That hazy wall of nostalgic production gives way to a visceral present in a live setting. While Sam France’s immediate impression was an imposing one — all trench coat-clad, his face obscured in shadow under a wide-brimmed hat, wailing and waving his fists like a doomsday prophet, equal parts Mick Jagger, Tom Verlaine, and Ian McCullough — he quickly shed those layers under the heat of the lighting, revealing a baggy green sweater that read “DR. SAM.”
Early in the set, he remarked, with an air of stoner friendliness, “Don’t let people bring you down — nobody knows what the fuck they’re doing, so everyone should just chill out!” The keyboardist seemed unamused with his antics, throwing him such icy glances in mid-harmony that he probably would’ve put his coat back on if he’d noticed them; fortunately for us, he was too distracted interacting with the crowd. Her disapproval notwithstanding, she and the rest of the band provided a solid grounding for his frantic (and wildly difficult to photograph) energy.
Following such a display, you’d likely expect UMO’s set to feel subdued by comparison. The glowing red candles resting on the amps and the stage floor would back up this assumption, as would Ruban Nielson’s outfit: a black shawl embroidered with red roses, and a kippa-like black cap — Jake Portrait and Riley Greate, appropriately enough, both wore crosses around their necks. Evidently, UMO were holy men that night, and their gospel was rock; Nielson focused on his fretwork as intently as though it were a prayer, his eyes almost constantly half-closed throughout the opening “Little Blue House.” If the vast majority of the audience singing along to “Ffunny Ffriends” later in the set was any indication, they were preaching to the choir.
Before UMO came on stage, I was observing the backdrop — the cover of II, blown up to the appropriate size — and I noted with some humor that on the cover of a different band’s album, a picture of a partially nude woman wielding a sword probably wouldn’t be considered tasteful. (Think speed metal airbrush art.) Even though UMO’s album art is more likely to grace a stoned undergrad’s dorm room wall than the side of a van, Nielson can shred, and his rhythm section is more than capable of keeping up with him. Onstage, Riley Geare’s thundering fills give these songs a muscle that you just don’t hear on wax, whether it’s an upbeat favorite like “How Can U Love Me” or solo-fest like “No Need for a Leader.” Whereas the original bass lines calmly underpin the guitar, Jake Portrait’s live bass matches Nielson’s virtuosity lick for lick. Even slower tracks like “Jello and Juggernauts” were dizzying when paired with the sight of UMO’s technical dexterity.
The setlist featured more songs from the debut than from II, but the longer runtimes of the sophomore album’s tracks led to a number of extended jams. After the show, an awestruck friend of mine decided he would tell his future children about this band. “I just want to talk to the band for like, a minute, just to say, ‘sir, you are like the Led Zeppelin of our generation, and I’m going to tell my kids, back in my day, I saw UMO over in Manhattan, and I’ll have all your records for them to listen to.” I’m inclined to chalk that comparison up to the Bowery’s overpriced Bud Light, but it’s not too inaccurate. Whatever your feelings on orthodox rock classicism, any generation can appreciate it when talented musicians put on a damn good rock show.