It’s been eight years since I’ve seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra live, and in that time, it seems a lot has changed while much has not. And I am excited to say, for UMO, the changes seem to have all been for the better.
My mental image of an UMO show is the silhouetted profile of the band, backlit against a psychedelic light show, with guitarist Ruban Nielson an indistinct shadow, hunched over his instrument, tiptoeing along the frets in alternately mournful and frenetic runs. In 2014, it was at Austin Psych Fest on an outdoor stage beneath the open sky. In 2015, it was at the Firebird on a tiny stage with the ceiling just overhead. Both shows were dark and moody, beautifully sad, as was the band’s sound at the time.
Fast forward eight years, and much has changed. Austin Psych Fest became Levitation and moved indoors after too many inclement weather issues. Our dear Firebird shuttered in 2020. And UMO is no longer playing intimate little clubs. To my pleasant surprise, the floor of the Pageant was packed and the balcony had a solid showing. Nielson seemed almost as surprised as I was at the turnout and dedication of the audience, who sang along with the oldest and newest material alike. With standard black outfits, the band was still backlit, but this time seemed different. Rather than trippy visual effects or roving spotlights, a giant U-M-O comprised of spare, giant light bulbs was the only feature of the set behind the band. Visual effects were limited to changing bulb colors or patterns. And the band seemed comfortable this time, more confident and in command of their material, driving forward a thoughtfully crafted setlist, understated and powerful, with insightful pacing. They felt in their element, like they knew the gold they had in their work and how to command it to full effect.
I wondered at first how UMO gained such traction with a younger (than me) audience until I realized how timely their lyrics are. The deceptively cheery-sounding “From the Sun” appeared early in the evening, with the crowd singing along in unison: “Isolation can put a gun in your hand… I’m so lonely, but I can never quite reach the phone…” In one of my favorites, “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” we daydreamed in a chipper melody, “I wish that I could swim and sleep like shark does | I’d fall to the bottom and I’d hide ‘til the end of time | In that sweet cool darkness | Asleep and constantly floating away.”
Themes of anomie and malaise were gaining traction as the zeitgeist of our times since before the pandemic, but all that social upheaval and quarantine really intensified our reactive celebration of introversion. In this way, Unknown Mortal Orchestra were ahead of their time and ready for the moment we embraced our discomforts. The foundation laid years ago, these songs are now anthems for today, and the sympathizers seem to have multiplied over the course of the last few years.
The setlist sampled heavily from their earliest work, peppered with tracks from the newest album, V, released less than a month before the show, a few selections from the most recent two albums, and a couple surprising and wonderful covers. While their sound has evolved over time, it all carries a unique UMO sound that marks all the material as unmistakably theirs: chords stretched out lazily as arpeggios, vocals oftentimes ambling in tandem with the bass or guitar, frequently in falsetto, always worming their way through your subconscious in the form of puzzles for your resting mind to try and recreate note-for-intricate-note. It’s the kind of sound that a really good whistler could have a field day with, full of nimble trills and melodic gymnastics. Along with the vibrato-heavy strings, UMO’s unique version of psychedelia feels like being underwater, as if all the strings are being played through a trumpet mute. With few exceptions among the mid-career material, the live experience feels like being glamoured by a snake charmer’s winding flute, lost in a fog. The effect is like dark yacht rock—Hall & Oates meets Billie Eilish, feeling emotionally intense but sounding so soft and pillowy.
The entire band got involved in recreating the dreamy three-part harmonies from their first two albums, including “Thought Ballune” and “From the Sun.” Nielson thanked the crowd for “letting” them play so much older material, but judging by the chorus coming from the floor, we were just as happy to hear it as they were to play it. The triple vocals returned for backing vocals on a groovy cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” which thrilled everyone of a certain age and puzzled anyone younger: “Who did they say this is? This is The Grateful Dead? I didn’t know they sound like this!” I never would have put the two together, but it made perfect sense upon delivery.
The latest album glows with blending of old and new in their expert manner of bringing together classic and inventive sounds. The offbeat, lilting drums of “Layla” were a joy to watch and feel, summoning Stewart Copeland with reggae-style drums incorporated into ‘80s pop with that trademark watery guitar. It’s a minefield of AM Gold ear worms, like the addictively saccharine “Weekend Run” and the unshakeable “That Life,” gliding along chord progressions with the accompaniment of buttery-smooth vocal trios.
In between now and then, selections from albums #3 and 4 were accompanied bigger and brighter, and their performance roused flares from the lighting rig and eager shuffling on the dancefloor gaining in intensity with the pulsing beats of “Multi-Love” from the 2015 album of the same name. Several clever medleys blended old tracks seamlessly with new, as “Necessary Evil” transitioned briefly and surprisingly to “Monki” and back again with squeaks of excitement from the audience.
There was little banter from the band, but when Nielson spoke, it was primarily to offer thanks for the support, accompanied by beaming smiles. He was too busy to chat, as the band treated us to nearly two nonstop hours of music. They scarcely feigned to take break, with a few bare moments of walking offstage, only to return for another lengthy half-set. Otherwise, Neilson and bassist Jacob Portrait never paused but only took an occasional backseat, crouching down in the shadows, still playing while giving the others their moment to shine, including a few lovely minutes of contemporary piano composition.
The big closer, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” gave us one final dance party and gave Nielson one more opportunity for his unusual flavor of guitar sound, shredding wildly on solos and spinning on his heels while riffing, like a regular Chuck Berry or Angus Young. For hours, they gave us pretty much everything—old material, new material, covers, jams, solos, instrumentals—on an artfully arranged platter. And still, I just wanted more of all of it. | Courtney Dowdall