Unknown Mortal Orchestra/Foxygen – The Bowery Ballroom – February 28, 2013
The first time I saw Unknown Mortal Orchestra (or UMO) a couple years back, they were a support act you could just tell wouldn’t be an opener for too much longer. So it felt like no coincidence that their big sold-out headlining show last night at The Bowery Ballroom would feature an opening band riding an acclaimed debut album and the justified hype to sold-out headlining gigs of their own before too long. That band, Foxygen, took the stage in a blaze of manic energy and echo-reverb ooh la la’s, twitching their way through pretty much all of their new We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic album. Those recorded tracks come off as retrofitted rock gems, but live they were a delightfully jagged and ragged set. Untethered from the studio, the sound felt like 1960s rock and roll in a blender: a juicy cocktail of Jagger’s vocals, McCartney’s bass, Morrison’s lithe, wild-eyed stage presence, the Who’s bombastic energy, an occasional dash of Dylan’s off-kilter harmonica, topped off with Neil Young’s hat. It was a delicious brew that the expectant crowd guzzled down happily, highlighted by whiplash versions of “On Blue Mountain” and “No Destruction.”
If Foxygen offered a look back for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, UMO returned the favor. Riding on a next-step sophomore album, simply titled II, the Portland, Ore., trio crackled with the confident, cohesive energy of a band in control. On paper, UMO are a standard power trio—guitar, bass and drums—but their sound has a subtle surrealistic edge. This is a power trio as painted by Salvador Dali, melting over the limbs of trees and walls in a distorted reality. They opened with a splash of older material, centered on the catchy, off-center “Thought Ballune,” every bit of music crunched through just the right amount of distortion. From there, they unveiled track after track from the new album, the heavy-hitter middle section of the show characterized by a nonstop, groove-rock bass playing from Jake Portrait, which propelled along each tune. Frontman Ruban Nielson, looking downright wizardlike in poncho and hat, took over from there, leading the band through the set’s final third, which seemed to get better with each passing riff. Centered on a surprising sing-along version of “From the Sun,” Nielson fit powerful guitar solos into perfectly orchestrated pieces, with each sound from the pummeling drumming of Riley Geare to Nielson’s vocals locked into place. That tune relented into a wonderful Frank Zappa section, which kept at it through the remainder: The band sounding as if Zappa were leading Zeppelin as a power trio through an updated psychedelic catalog.
While the late-night packed crowd thinned out a bit around midnight, those who remained to the end seemed to hear pretty much everything from both albums by the end of the night, from the just-weird-enough “Ffunny Ffriends,” off the self-titled debut to the soulful “So Good at Being in Trouble,” off II. I was struck by how much better the already-darn-good band had gotten since that opening hit, getting me to already contemplate their next time through town, as well as what the future brings for Foxygen. And of course, most important, who will be opening for them when they’re playing their big sold-out headlining show. —A. Stein