Unknown Mortal Orchestra at the Commodore Ballroom, 5/8/18
Tuesday night saw a sold-out crowd for the west coast psych-rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The four piece band, touring their new album Sex & Food, is the brain-child of New Zealander Ruban Nielson whose passion for music reverberates in his nimble lyricism and modulated guitar riffs. Tuesday night’s show was a good representation of the band’s discography, its spirit.
The last of a late evening rain hit the large windows in the Commodore Ballroom as the crowd of mostly 20-something-year-olds rolled in. A certain antsy feeling bounced around which gave way later in the show to a craze, with one particularly spirited concert-goer launching a bottle clear to the high ceiling. Despite this, most others seemed to be having a great, safe time throughout.
Much to the pleasure of veteran fans, the band started out with older songs like “Funny Friends” and “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark).” The outset was a bit shaky—there seemed to be some problems with the mic—but they quickly rebounded and had the crowd dancing, smiling, singing along. They went into “Necessary Evil” from the album Multi-Love (a personal favorite of this reviewer) then into “From the Sun”. Only four minutes on the album II, Nielson stretched “From the Sun” into a nearly ten minute-long guitar heavy free-for-all, where he walked through the crowd and soloed on the Commodore’s balcony before heading back to the stage.
Theatrics like Nielson’s multiple walks through the crowd, which puzzled and delighted, added a nice touch to the show. Nielson was swarthy and all smiles in his retro Canucks jersey. He thanked his band and sound crew and at a point took a break to take shots of tequila with them.
The lights and stage were immaculate. Behind the band were stacked glass boxes outlined with neon lights—inside the boxes were house-plants meticulously arranged—an interesting installation that gave the impression of ferns dancing like fire. A light show that moved well with the often drastic shifts of the tempo did justice to the beautiful venue. After several of the songs, the lights went completely out, leaving the audience in darkness and applause.
Songs from Sex & Food, a bit more poppy than their previous albums, lit up the crowd. “American Guilt” and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” provoked howls of approval which prompted Nielson to say: “Thanks Vancouver, you guys are crazy.” The encore featured Nielson and the drummer (his brother Cody) singing alone together which then led into “Honey Bee” a newly popular song filled with poppy singing and strong rhythms. Nielson pulled out his MJ moves, and by the time they played the final song “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” the whole crowd was dancing. It was a blast.
The ability to have such a wide appeal, taking the best of psych-rock, R&B and pop, is special. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is constantly navigating new terrain while staying true to an original sound that endeared them to indie fans across North America and the world. Nielson’s energy and thoughtful lyrics fill the room. This is a band to watch out for, and it was a pleasure to see them at one of the best venues in Canada.