It takes a fairly self-assured bunch to test their audience’s patience with an extended drum solo. Portland-based (with roots in New Zealand) Unknown Mortal Orchestra have barely finished a song before bear-like percussionist gets to batter his kit in a Bonham-esque fit that suggest deeply held resentments against the instrument.
As the evening progresses, everyone on stage is allowed to flash their musical excellence, often in generous portions.
This taste for spontaneity is somewhat surprising, as UMO’s usually pitched as a solipsistic studio-based project for bandleader and songwriter Ruban Nielson, who plays almost every note on the band’s three albums. We’re not watching the genius and three hired hands doing what they’re told tonight, however; this is obviously a tight, well-seasoned band.
The extended, low-lit cocktail jazz coda that a wonderfully woe-be-gone rendition of So Good At Being In Trouble – one of the many highlights in a 13-song set that never dips below fully compelling – would be indescribably dull in less able hands, but Nielson and co. keep the capacity crowd’s attention even as the decibels drop by keeping things pulsating with funky intent.
Ur Life, One Night and Like Acid Train are amongst the most synthetic moments on (relatively speaking) guitar-dodging, justifiably praised new album Multi-Love. Tonight, the former sounds like 80s vintage Prince – complete with Nielson’s virtuoso guitar playing which makes you wonder just how much practice it must take to dispense licks at such a hyperactive rate whilst singing at the same time – performing underwater. The latter’s brightly lit, cymbal-splashing sugar-rush gains a meatier edge resembling a robot Sly Stone on a hefty helping of caffeine.
Remarkably, none of this showing-off of musicianly muscles diminishes the tunes; rather, it adds to it, rendering the likes of Multi-Love’s shimmering space-age Motown title track – essentially a collection of hooks that somehow hangs together perfectly as a song – even more impressive.
Having been inspired by messy relationship dangles, Multi-Love – which deservedly dominates tonight’s set – packs plenty of trouble and strife underneath its brightly lit, psychedelic disco-funk exterior.
Tonight, however, selections new and old are delivered with a palpable joy and a distinct wealth of good humour; at one point, Nielson ventures through the enthusiastically high-fiving audience whilst belting out a verse.
The contrast between the heartsick fragility that fuels many of these songs and the visible glee at playing as part of a kick-ass band provides a useful reminder that sad songs don’t have to translate into a downbeat delivery.