Unknown Mortal Orchestra is “So Good at Being in Trouble,” but even better at lighting up the stage

April 25, 2023

Unknown Mortal Orchestra's new album, II, comes out Feb. 5. Courtesy of the band/NPR

At Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sold-out concert at the 9:30 Club on April 19th, the second of a two-night run, one could hardly find room to dance amidst the strobe light-illuminated main floor. Predominantly college-aged and young-millennial fans packed in for a journey through each era of the band’s decade-long discography, covering a range of mid-tempo soft jams, disco-inspired pop, and upbeat rock in the two-hour set. While the band has yet to make the full jump into mainstream consciousness, their vast experience as a touring act was evident in the well-crafted, dynamic setlist, mixing musical styles effortlessly and leaving the crowd fulfilled and energized.

Pinning down Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s genre is not an easy task. I tend to think of them as a minimalist, beer-holding, light-rock experience, though the overarching category of psychedelic rock seems to fit. Their recently released fifth studio album V (2023) contains a mix of surf rock, funk, and Hawaiian hapa-haole amidst its tropical theme. The band’s earlier discography has explored balladry, minimalist pop, and disco, always maintaining a sense of cohesion through their mid-tempo signature and experimental instrumentals and lyricism. I didn’t know what to expect from UMO on a big stage, but I walked in relatively sure I would experience the band’s sonically-experimental hits in a new way.

Before Unknown Mortal Orchestra took to the stage, opener Seafoam Walls performed a sedentary yet enjoyable set of stripped-back psychedelic tunes reminiscent of popular modern psych bands like Khruangbin (or the headliners themselves). Rather than exploring the stage or engaging with the audience during songs, the group of four stood lined up at center stage with their respective instruments for the entirety of the set, appearing inexperienced with a venue of that size. But what they lacked in crowd work they made up for in head-bopping tunes and charming mid-set chats: “We’re Seafoam Walls. Our merch and vinyls are in the back. We’ll just keep singing now!”

UMO’s set began 30 minutes after the opening performance with a drawn-out, somber keyboard introduction to “The Garden,” the first track on V. As their touring keyboardist (and father of frontman Ruban Nielson) Chris Nielson took the stage, the show’s backdrop was revealed: large, LED lighting fixtures that spelled out the band’s acronym and backlit the foursome for the whole set. The bright backdrop shrouded the group’s faces in shadow, interestingly—and perhaps intentionally—limiting the audience’s photographic potential. The crowd roared as the rest of the band entered, but unfortunately, the first track felt like a weird, distorted opener with little melody, ill-fit for the cathartic release of energy most would expect to start off a rock concert. 

Despite an unconventional start, the electrifying instrumentals, unpredictable song styles, and crisp, raspy voice of UMO’s frontman kept the audience rapt throughout the evening. Upbeat rocker “From The Sun” and the next few songs after that picked up the pace, digging into the band’s earlier hits. The family affair got into a much more comfortable groove of mid-tempo jams starting with V’s lead single “Weekend Run” and the laid-back “Necessary Evil.” The first half hour of the set was better suited to head-bobbing and body-swaying than all-out dancing, but the songs remained diverse and groovy enough to hold interest center stage. The band closed the first section with their catchy “Nadja,” a highlight of the night as the audience sang along prominently for the first time.

The band got even more audience buy-in as they began their 2013 hit “So Good at Being in Trouble.” They performed it softly, as recorded, before ending the track with a live-exclusive outro, starring loud drum, electric guitar, and saxophone solos, with strobe lights matching the speed of each member’s furious playing, finally demonstrating the full capabilities of their usually minimalist instrumentalists. Following this track, the night transitioned into a much more rock-centric, upbeat set, producing hits “Multi-Love,” “Layla,” and a particularly fun cover of “Shakedown Street” by The Grateful Dead. Their performance of V’s “Meshuggah” presented a danceable, beat-driven version of the song that I never got from listening to the recorded track, leaving me with a new favorite. From the gallery view above the dancefloor, one could see the audience getting more lively, with this change in pace prompting louder screams and vivacious dancing which carried through until the end of the night.

It’s always fun when an artist can get a whole crowd singing something we don’t hear coming from our mouths often. The polygamously-themed “Multi-Love” was among the best sing-alongs of the night, and I got a kick out of singing “We were one, then become three,” and “She doesn’t want to be your man or woman, she wants to be your love” with a large number of millennial couples midway through the night.

The band broke for a brief keyboard interlude before returning to close the night with a stream of their most recognizable tunes, all under a previously unlit disco ball atop the stage which signified a disco-infused end to the night. The tropical vibe of “That Life” lit up the now loose, energetic room before segueing into the late-night ballroom number “Hunnybee” off their 2018 album Sex & Food. It was one of the songs I was most looking forward to hearing before the show, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself full-body dancing thanks to the live addition of a top drumbeat. They closed the night with the 2015 hit “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” ending on a loud note to a sea of screams from a satisfied crowd. The band left the stage victorious after a raging two hours, appearing deservingly exhausted. 

UMO’s consistent build-up of energy created a set with no pitfalls, highlighting the diversity of the band’s talents and the ease with which they gallivant genres. The tour presents a band still brimming with ideas, and I hope they get the kind of breakout success that allows the chance of larger venues with higher production value in the future—I’m confident they’ll know what to do with it.

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