San Francisco – Another week–and a new month–in San Francisco brings more fabulous music to the famed venue The Fillmore, which rests on holy ground on Fillmore St. and Geary Blvd., mere meters from the city’s celebrated Japantown area. And while the first night of February at the Fillmore did not feature any new bands from the Land of the Rising Sun, those in attendance were treated to a fantastic, eclectic set from a relatively new act from similar longitude: New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra–for those who are unfamiliar–is the brainchild of New Zealander Ruban Nielson, who began his Americanized career as soon as he started calling Portland, Oregon his home in recent years. Since the release of UMO’s eponymous debut in 2011, Nielson and the willing and eager companions making up his backing band have seen a steady rise in success, following up with 2013’s mostly acoustic, aptly named II (celebrating its second year of life this month) and then last year’s funk-laden Multi-Love, which saw the band enter a somewhat tricky yet altogether well-navigated sonic terrain that effortlessly blended hearty doses of 90s pop and Rodgers-era funk with hints of the enigmatic gloom of 80s darkwave, leaving the resulting LP in a deliciously enticing gray area. Multi-Love straddles the line between curious intrigue and heartbreak like no other album in recent memory, and the live performance it inspires is no less ambiguous in the most delightful way.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s show at The Fillmore is automatically entered into some sort of canon as it is, due to its location and the complementary specialized posters handed out at the evening’s conclusion. But the show itself was so much more than a milestone. I’ve seen UMO several times throughout their career, at places as small as the back room of a ruby-tinted bar in New Orleans (when you could still smoke inside) and as large as a festival that sees 80,000+ annual attendees (see our Bonnaroo 2015 coverage). The venue is of no consequence to Nielson and his team; the performances never lack enthusiasm, or talent, or artistry. UMO always gives it their all, and it’s not as if they have to try all that hard. They are just natural performers, and they make it look so easy.
After a dynamite set by their tour mates, the Baltimore trio Lower Dens (their lead singer, Jana Hunter, is a revelation), Unknown Mortal Orchestra took the stage, their faces looking unimpressed, veiled with pale overhead lights. As the first chords of Multi-Love’s second track–the very Prince-esque ”Like Acid Rain”–began to take shape, however, the half dozen or so light sculptures resembling a semicircle of LED-powered super-speakers bloomed to life, offering spectral wreaths of vibrant color that spun around within each elongated cube like a laundromat washer full of Christmas lights. Such structures were visibly itching to match Nielson’s energy, but the New Zealand native’s natural prowess–as he bounced between licorice guitar, bountiful vocals and innate showmanship–always seemed to outshine the ambitious visual display.
The sold-out crowd was hungry, and I’d say well satiated by the end of things. While most of the set focused on Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi-Love material–diligently peppered throughout the set with songs like “Ur Life One NIght,” “The World is Crowded,” and “Stage or Screen,” in addition to set-closer “Multi-Love,” which brought the house down–Nielson also took time to celebrate some older favorites from UMO’s prior two albums. The crowd was easily persuaded to sing along with II’s “So Good at Being in Trouble,” “From the Sun,” and, of course, the ever-enjoyable “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” but most seemed incredulous at hearing the band’s first single “Ffunny Ffriends,” and even more so during “Thought Ballune”–which also hails from their first LP–forcing me to my toes as one of the band’s finest tunes, featuring an incredibly skillful guitar hook that I’ve never had the privilege of seeing live before. Most of the songs performed also provided extended instrumental breaks–mostly in the form of lengthy outros–which aided the audience’s building appreciation of the band’s onstage persona: a fine justification for the twenty-plus dollars required for entry.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s encore was short but trustworthy, first treating the crowd with Multi-Love’s softest, jazziest piece, “Necessary Evil,” before transitioning into their illustrious dance number/disco-requiem for our generation’s impotence against modern technology and its consequential neuroses, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone.” This last entry left the audience jubilant, exhausted, and begging for more. Alas, our last request was never fulfilled.
Of all the acts that have released three LPs within the last half-decade, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s series of albums is amongst the most impressive. Those bands that push themselves to embrace reinvention (Radiohead and Deerhunter come to mind most prevalently) are the ones that will truly benefit in the long run, because ingenuity trumps safety every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Ruban Nielson is not only passionate in his written/recorded material, but he also pulls out every stop imaginable in the live setting, and with every risk he takes for the sake of originality both his band and his audience is rewarded, handsomely.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is currently on tour with Lower Dens through the end of February, and will continue to tour North America this spring and Europe this summer, including slots at major festivals like Coachella and Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival. Their latest release, last year’s Multi-Love, is now available through Jagjaguwar.