Unknown Mortal Orchestra / Lower Dens

Rickshaw Theatre, Vancouver BC, January 28

Photo: Sharon Steele

BY Alan RantaPublished Jan 29, 2016

It seems as though psych troupe Unknown Mortal Orchestra keep playing bigger venues every time they make the trip up the coast to Vancouver, selling out the intimate Media Club in 2013 and now repeating the feat in the sizeable Rickshaw Theatre, having played stops at the Biltmore and Imperial in between. This trend is likely to continue after filling the Rickshaw so full that the Facebook event page was mostly littered with ticket requests in the week leading up the show.
Joining UMO for their triumphant tour across North America, Baltimore's Lower Dens opened with a set of mostly downtempo '80s throwback pop that all blended together into a bland mush after a couple tracks, its set list largely taken from their 2015 album Escape from Evil. There seemed to be a lot of awkward shrugging between songs. Despite the repetitive songwriting, their changes seemed as laboured as singer Jana Hunter's faux-British drawl.
However, whatever Lower Dens were lacking was quickly made up for by the headliners as Unknown Mortal Orchestra immediately proved their meteoric rise over the last couple years to be well deserved. Surrounded by six banks of metallic LED lighting rigs that looked like jet turbines, with purples, blues and reds triggered in timed sequences to emphasize their dynamic changes and punchy rhythms, frontman Ruban Nielson may not have had effortless vocal skills, but he knew his range, and worked hard to get every sliver of nuance from it without pushing it to where it oughtn't be. Further getting into character, he got low and punctuated his set with some popping to embody the spirit of a classic soul singer as their set list leaned towards the funkier side of their three-album catalogue.
Unfortunately, Nielson's voice was hit-and-miss in the mix for most of the night. It was hard to tell if that was a system problem or a choice of some kind, as he spent much of "So Good at Being in Trouble" singing incomprehensibly with his mouth directed away from the mic. Still, the crowd came in to belt out the song's chorus, so it didn't really matter.
Ultimately, whatever may have been lacking vocally was made up for by their overall musicianship. They were tight and dynamic, capable of stripping each song down to almost nothing, and working through smart transitions between songs while maintaining their sense of momentum.
Nielson shredded on lead guitar like a man possessed, nimbly coaxing every wah-wah from the extended solo on "From the Sun" as if religiously compelled. Jake Portrait unassumingly held it down on bass, while crazy mountain man drummer Riley Geare filled the hell out of the transition into "Ur Life One Night." Keyboardist Quincy McCrary worked some sweet synth solos in there for "So Good at Being in Trouble" and "Stage or Screen," the latter of which ended with an elegant piano interlude that presupposed the tickled ivories in their retooled take on "Ffunny Ffrends." On the latter track, the crowd clapped along unprovoked as McCrary jammed out the jazzy melody to its conclusion.
"Stage or Screen" was also notable for Nielson putting down his guitar to just sing, sitting cross-legged on a monitor stage-right that he climbed mid-song. That was one of the moments, along with their advanced lighting rig, that demonstrated UMO are ready for a bigger stage.

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