Unknown Mortal Orchestra self-identifies as a rock band. Those familiar only with the New Zealand group’s most popular, lo-fi tracks — “So Good at Being in Trouble” and “Multi-Love” — or even those only familiar with its latest release, Sex & Food, would classify the band as maybe indie rock, as more similar to mumbled bedroom electronic pop, even with all the outfittings and instrumental skills of a rock band.
And then you see Unknown Mortal Orchestra live.
On May 10, the crowd packed tightly in the pit of the Fox Theater. In between passed joints and shared beers, the prevailing atmosphere was too claustrophobic to be a kickback, yet too laid-back to be a typical rock show.
Clad in an oversized black, yellow and red hockey jersey, frontman Ruban Nielson took to the stage surrounded by a sea of blue haze. Once his bandmates were onstage, Nielson began strumming his bright red electric guitar and launched into the vocals, crooning into the mic.
In Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s recorded work, every up-tempo shift is matched by soothing, gently sung vocals. Every lyric is crisp and enunciated, though nonchalant and mellow in content. Live, Nielson’s vocals were incomprehensible. The band opened with lesser-known tracks, and the crowd — largely only fluent in the songs that grace the top of the group’s Spotify profile — couldn’t supplement these mumbles with their own singing.
But that hardly mattered. Flashing lights and amped-up reverb culminated in multiple guitar solos by Nielson, all of which were greeted by deafening cheers. Arms shot into the air; beers splashed down said arms.
It was a crowd more likely to mouth smoke rings than lyrics, but when the entire crowd did know the track being performed — the first of this kind was “Necessary Evil,” off the band’s 2015 release Muti-Love — pandemonium broke out. While the audience lacked die-hard fans, it made up for this deficiency in passion.
And Nielson fed off this energy. Beyond multiple impromptu guitar flourishes, he disappeared from the stage early on in the set, the talent of his bandmates keeping the vaguely confused crowd dancing until he reappeared, minutes later, on the Fox Theater balcony. Overlooking the crowd below, he played a few bars before heading back to the stage once more, his second disappearance met by cheers that reverberated through his return.
Later on, he weaved through the pit as he crooned the ethereal, mournful lyrics of “Not in Love We’re Just High” — yet his aim wasn’t to woo so much as to be surrounded by those who came to see him. “Clap!” Nielson demanded of the audience members as they made space for his trek. “I’m not doing this for nothing,” he joked.
And the audience did clap, though the track possesses far less punchy beats than the band’s other pieces. Throughout the set, the onstage showmanship was unexpected but warmly received by the laid-back crowd, a group willing to jump on command and groove when the tempo slowed.
Nielson didn’t open up to the crowd until the tail end of the set, sharing everything from the fact that his mother is from Hawaii — he credits her as the source of the group’s acoustic tilt — to the fact that he got jumped in Portland the night before. “Shit happens,” Nielson said flippantly and then rushed into the next song.
This insouciance isn’t usually the band’s M.O. — in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s lyrics, there’s almost always an emotional depth. The words convey irreverent sadness and longing that play out even over the most up-tempo of beats — and they’re never really up-tempo. This sense of mourning didn’t play out onstage, but how could it?
Instead, Nielson brought out all the stops of showmanship under the spotlight. When the fast-paced strobe lights illuminated the audience, he could see people just as excited to dance along, just as excited to wholeheartedly lose themselves in clapping and singing to “Multi-Love” as they were to pass the joint.
Oakland healed me!!! 🙌🏽
— UMO (@UMO) May 11, 2018
Caroline Smith is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].