Once again, Unknown Mortal Orchestra played an outrageously good show at the 9:30 Club. But unlike the intimate, hushed nature of their last performance at the venue – back on a freezing evening in February 2016 – this was a raucous Friday night party led from start to finish by frontman Ruban Nielson.
UMO set the mood by kicking off the show with three of their biggest hits, fan favorites “Ffunny Ffrends”, “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)”, and “So Good at Being in Trouble”, each of which was greeted with roaring approval by the crowd. Nielson was all smiles from the start, and had the audience of 1200 singing along and bouncing to his every word. By the time they played “American Guilt”, the first single off of their latest release Sex & Food, everyone was rapt with enthusiasm. It was at this point that the New Zealand native decided to climb off the stage and actually walk through the crowd with his guitar, shredding all the way through his long tour of the floor. Fans swarmed at first, then gave him enough space to play after realizing they were affecting the music. It felt like a spontaneous and deserved gesture; the band and audience were feeding off of each other’s energy. I’ve previously remarked on how tame D.C. crowds can often be, and this was a commendably enthusiastic packed house.
Another moment that stood out during the show came courtesy of a small gesture by Nielson. When I was in the photo pit for the first couple of songs, I saw a young man standing dead center in the front row who looked like the happiest person in the world simply by virtue of being there; Nielson reached down and shook his hand between the second and third songs. Later on in the night and deep into the set, when Nielson decided to crowd surf again, someone hoisted him up on their shoulders; I was delighted to recognize the person doing the heavy lifting as that same guy who had been grinning ear to ear. Sometimes it’s the little things that warm your heart, folks.
At this point in their career, it would be easy enough for Nielson and company to mail in a performance; the band has released four records, all relatively well-received by critics and tastemakers, and they regularly tour the world playing clubs on the larger end. But UMO’s enthusiasm and enjoyment was clearly apparent – and infectious. This was particularly welcome considering that Nielson recently confessed that he was thinking about killing off the band, an idea prompted by losing keyboardist Quincy McCrary, concerns that UMO was “morphing into a jam band”, and an existential crisis of sorts. Fortunately, the group stayed together and wrote Sex & Food, a record that sounds like the next step in UMO’s sonic evolution: slightly more melodic, lighter on the swirling psychedelic guitars, and several clicks more accessible to pop sensibilities.
Ably assisted by long-time collaborator and bassist Jake “Snake” Portrait, and joined on tour for the first time by brother (and former bandmate with The Mint Chicks) Kody Nielson, on drums, there was clearly good energy in the room. The Nielson brothers gave us plenty by way of incredible vocal harmonies, including an a cappella rendition of “Chronos Feasts on His Children” that sent chills up my spine (in the best way possible). The band wrapped the night with a twenty-seven minute encore – the most sincere show of gratitude they could give all of us.