Unknown Mortal Orchestra Prove What’s Old Is New

October 14th, 2013

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Music Hall of Williamsburg – October 11, 2013

In this what’s-old-is-new-again age of rock, it’s sometimes fun to think about what classic bands from the past might sound like if they had started in the here and now. Like what would the 2013 version of the Jimi Hendrix Experience sound like? Maybe something like Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the Portland, Ore., trio that impressively scrambled guitar, bass and drums on Friday night at a packed Music Hall of Williamburg. Working in equal parts from their two records, they offered spiraling space jams, soulful interludes and artful interplay. With its chaotic pink lighting setting off a jammy section that made way for intensely raging drums, early set highlight “How Can You Luv Me” revealed how much it’s grown since the group’s self-titled debut album came out in 2011.

Frontman Ruban Nielson proved his dexterity throughout the set, twisting his guitar and voice through a variety of colorful distortions, both playing off of each other in some sort of complicated waltz. Nielson holds his guitar high up on his chest, strap barely over his shoulder, neck pointed out like a little boy who turns anything he can get his hands on into a rifle. And he did wield it like a weapon, song after song unleashing heavy-duty artillery. But over the past few years, UMO have found admirable cohesive energy as a three-man unit, with bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geere as equal contributors to a set full of highlight electricity jams.

So, of course, the encore began with just Nielson offering a fantastic solo acoustic version of “Swim and Sleep,” fine guitar fingering accompanying a sweet, quiet vocal. This melted into an almost Raga-like electric solo before the band returned for an excellent “Ffunny Ffriends” that opened up into an extended everyone-wins rock-out. A third song began with Nielson on acoustic then moving to electric leading to a weird, slightly off section before a final dragon-slayer guitar jam that felt at times like it might melt into a distortion-laden live-at-Woodstock version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But that’s the past and there’s no doubt that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is undoubtedly what’s new. —A. Stein