Concert Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra Jumpstart Their NA tour @ the Rickshaw

Having missed their show in July, and having heard much praise of their live show, I was excited to see UMO at the Rickshaw, where I had last seen the rambunctious doo wop and punk duo King Khan and the BBQ Show. Though sonically these bands differ greatly, they seem to share elements of weirdness, powerful energy, and experimentation, and I was looking forward to seeing these at play in UMO’s set. I’ve had their second album, 2015’s Multi Love, on repeat for the last 24 hours, and I’ve still got the catchier hooks from the album ringing in my head as I take a seat. It’s an album of textured synth-heavy pop, with touches of R&B and funk seeping through. It’s also the reason for their North American tour, which begins tonight.

L.A-based openers Lower Dens come on to strong applause. The three-piece consists of six-string bassist Geoff Graham, drummer Nate Nelson and vocalist Jana Hunter, and they’ll be accompanying UMO for the duration of the tour – but here, they seem a little off. It isn’t that they screw up at all, but, this being the first show on their tour, you can tell they’re lacking a little bit of confidence. Also, differences between their live set and recordings suggest that there’s a lot production-wise that they can’t recreate onstage. Despite some of the missed cues, the band’s brooding, hypnotic shoegaze, driven by Hunter’s haunting vocals, definitely makes an impression on the audience. Comparisons to Beach House are warranted, but miss out on the full picture of UMO’s personal and darkly emotional sound. With a setlist of songs from their two previous records, Twin Hand Movement and Nootropics, as well as from their 2015 release Escape From Evil, they manage to take the captivated audience on a journey of muddled, lo-fi heartbreak. One particularly beautiful moment is when Jana Hunter finishes her set a cappella, her vibrating, almost wailing voice carrying to the back of the venue.

15 minutes after Lower Dens’ set, the venue is heating up and at capacity. Another photographer leans over and tells me of UMO that he ‘didn’t know they were such a big draw’. Looking over the packed theatre, I’m astounded at how a band can emerge from the obscurity of one man’s Bandcamp profile and find themselves, two albums later, coasting on a North American tour into Pitchfork-praised stardom. It would be easy to clump the Portland/New Zealand hybrid group into the new era of psych-rock ushered in by bands like the Flaming Lips and, most recently, Tame Impala. Complete with a third-eye tattoo, the band’s originator and frontman Ruban Nielson certainly gives off a nouveau hippie vibe, but his songs take psych-rock to new levels with drowned out funk, upbeat soul grooves, and a keen ear for jangly, addictive pop melodies.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra come on stage to uproarious applause and begin their set without much of an introduction. Lit by a multicoloured, nearly strobe-like set up (incidentally a photographer’s nightmare), they take off with a medley of new and old songs, the latter off their 2012 LP II. They follow the album’s lead single “FFunny FFriends” with an elongated breakdown, during which keyboardist Quincy McCrary flaunts his musicianship by repeating the simple chorus line with growing speed and intensity. For this moment, Nielsen leaves the spotlight, and charmingly decides to sit on an amp and just dig what his band mate is playing. Next comes “The World is Crowded,” a laid back, surreal anthem for life in 2015, with classically black-humoured UMO lyrics like, “In another life did she blow my brains out?”

UMO is a band whose live sound differs from the layered, more electronic aesthetic of their records. But the four-piece does the songs justice by adding extended solos, which highlight the talents of each member. Nielsen’s vocals, both live and on record, are often overpowered by the other instruments; as a result, the show feels more about the instrumental breaks and well-executed transitions, always pulled off seamlessly.

Their single “Multi-Love” throws the crowd into frenzy, as does II’s beloved “So Good at Being in Trouble,” a melancholic tune that has everyone in the crowd singing along, whether they’ve heard it before or not. It’s a song that seems to speak to every relationship, and demonstrates Nielsen’s ability that feels relatable to the point of timelessness – without having to compromise any of the band’s idiosyncrasies. Nielsen eggs the crowd on even more with some onstage mischief: at one point, he climbs a speaker and crouches on a rickety platform before jumping down – to the clear dissatisfaction of a bodyguard below him. A performance of the warped “Stage or Screen” and a brief backstage break are followed by an encore of two bangers off Multi-Love: “Necessary Evil,” with its ridiculously catchy filtered synth line, and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, an of-the-moment, clap-along anthem that addresses the themes of polyamory that underlie Multi-Love. If UMO’s set felt slightly rushed – they sped up many of the songs for their live show – it was to the service of their lively, dancing audience.
As people begin filing out of the Rickshaw into a rainy Vancouver evening on Main and Hastings, finishing beers and talking the show over, the few voices of disappointment are drowned out by the many, many satisfied ones.

Multi-Love Tour Dates:

02-07 Austin, TX – Emo’s *
02-08 Houston, TX – Numbers *
02-09 Dallas, TX – Trees *
02-11 New Orleans, LA – Republic New Orleans *
02-12 Birmingham, AL – Saturn *
02-13 Nashville, TN – Exit In *
02-14 Asheville, NC – Orange Peel *
02-16 Richmond, VA – The National *
02-17 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club *
02-18 Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer *
02-19-20 New York, NY – Irving Plaza *
03-05 Santo Domingo, Domincan Republic – Isle of Light
04-13 Visalia, CA – The Cellar Door ^
04-14 Santa Barbara, CA – SOhO Music Club ^
04-16 Indio, CA – Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
04-21 Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up Tavern
04-23 Indio, CA – Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival
04-28 Sao Paulo, Brazil – Beco 203
04-29 Buenos Aires, Argentina – Niceto Club
04-30 Santiago, Chile – Sala Omnium
05-07 Fort Collins, CO – Aggie Theatre #
05-08 Lincoln, NE – Vega #
05-09 Des Moines, IA – Wooly’s #
05-10 Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall #
05-12 Lawrence, KS – Bottleneck #
05-13 Memphis, TN – 1884 #
05-13-15 Atlanta, GA – Shaky Knees Festival
05-17 Columbus, OH – Skullys Music Diner #
05-18 Grand Rapids, MI – The Pyramid Scheme #
05-19 Madison, WI – Majestic Theatre #
05-20 Fargo, ND – The Aquarium #
05-21 Winnipeg, Manitoba – WECC #
05-23 Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – Amigos Cantina #
05-24 Edmonton, Alberta – The Starlite Room #
05-25 Calgary, Alberta – Commonwealth #
05-27 George, WA – Sasquatch Festival
05-27-29 Boston, MA – Boston Calling
06-17-19 Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands – Best Kept Secret Festival
06-17-19 Aarhus, Denmark – Northside Festival
07-01 Vilanova I La Geltru, Spain – Vida Festival
07-03 Werchter, Belgium – Rock Werchter
09-02-03 Berkeley, CA – Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley !

* with Lower Dens
^ with Vinyl Williams
# with Whitney
! with Tame Impala

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