It’s not often you go to a show where in the middle of the opening song, the lead singer leaves the stage, meanders through the crowd, does a shot of vodka at the same time as high-fiving the sound guy at the back of the room and eventually, much to the utter bewilderment and surprise of the crowd, meanders back to the stage to finish off the song. Oh, did I mention he was absolutely shredding on the guitar at the same time?
Yes, seemingly, it’s all in a day’s work when you’re Ruban Neilson, frontman of the Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO), brought out by this year’s Brisbane Festival team. From the moment the lights came on, the four piece psychedelic rock band undoubtedly had the audience in the palm of their hands. It’s been awhile since I was at the Tivoli theatre in Brisbane and I had honestly forgotten what a fabulous venue it was. The vibrant atmosphere generated by the close proximity of the stage (and perhaps the sticky carpet and beer swilling patrons) creates a truly electric experience and UMO were the perfect band to fill the space. And electrify the air they did.
Although you’d think the initial opener, ‘From the Sun’ would be a tough act to follow (especially given the interactive vodka swilling antics), UMO continued to give the crowd what they’d come for – quality sound, beautiful harmonies and complex chord arrangements. ‘Ministry’ and the hit, ‘So Good At Being in Trouble’ had the sweaty, gyrating crowd singing along and when the opening chords to the psychedelic ‘Multi Love’ began, there was definitely a contagious, frenetic energy in the air. Even newer songs off their latest ‘Sex and Food’ album, such as the rocking ‘American Guilt’ and the more funk-driven track, ‘Hunnybee’, were met with riotous applause.
Perhaps the adoring crowd got a little overwhelming for Neilson as twice he struggled to remember the riffs for ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’, yet managed to redeem himself eventually and the band were able to bring the track home in their true rock style. Although he was a man of few words, pausing only to encourage the already amped crowd to get amongst it and dance ”cause that’s the only reason we’re fucking here right?’, Neilson commanded the stage and his presence filled the room.
Who needs a conductor in this tight orchestra when you have a frontman like Neilson and the other members of the band, whether they like it or not,are mere pawns in his game of chess. Yet somehow it works and Neilson’s showmanship steers the band in all the right directions. With moody riffs, evocative of lazy Sunday afternoons, sentimental, heartfelt lyrics and an entertaining and professionally executed performance, we were all left reeling in awe out on the street, wondering when UMO would once again grace us with their presence.