Concert Reviews

Unknown Mortal Orchestra Jammed Out a Fat Tuesday Masterclass at Trees

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
With Lower Dens
Trees, Dallas
Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Unknown Mortal Orchestra absolutely tore through their set for a sold-out show at Trees on Fat Tuesday, playing in front of a backdrop of lights that looked like a bunch of giant Lifesavers. The only acknowledgement of the holiday came when frontman Ruban Nielson put on a necklace of beads as the band closed out the last song of the night, but that made little difference to this ecstatic crowd.

The band has come a long way since “Ffunny Frends” went viral on Bandcamp almost six years ago. After touring the world many times over and releasing three critically acclaimed albums — including last year’s Multi-Love, which topped many year-end best of lists — Unknown Mortal Orchestra is now a funky psychedelic-rock jam-band with serious chops.

Even with their latest album likely being their strongest, they played a set that evenly represented their entire catalogue. UMO took to the stage a little after 10 p.m. The crowd had shown few signs of even being aware of a concert taking place in the venue up until that point, but then they erupted.

This was an incredible set. Even with recordings that suggest a rock band that listens to Stevie Wonder every day, it was still shocking how these songs were exponentially funkier live. Early tracks like “Thought Ballune” and “How Can You Luv Me” were excellent examples of this. These renditions were extended psychedelic jams and the latter featured a drum solo that would have worked just fine even in a stadium show from a showoff band like Van Halen.
“Ffunny Friends” was surprisingly one of the highlights of the night. It started with a gorgeous thematic intro on the piano and turned into one of the best feel-good sing-along songs we will hear in Deep Ellum all year. The song has never sounded so joyful in the past and it ended with a rollicking jazzy piano outro that had people clapping and stomping. It was like UMO became a world-class bar band.

Like many of the songs they played, “Thought Ballune” is a track that has undergone a massive transformation after years of touring, almost to the point of being unrecognizable. These songs were so loose, often abstract, barely held together by their original structures. It is hard to imagine two similar performances. UMO makes great albums and you should buy them, but the best way to hear this music is to see this four-piece band perform live, no question.

From their second album, “So Good at Being in Trouble” didn’t start out sounding especially different. The song supposedly has roots in Austin and the crowd seemed to sing along to it more than any other track, perhaps giving the band a chance to relax. But then it descended into another jam, albeit slow and understated.

Many of the newer songs were breezier and hadn’t morphed as much. After playing for precisely an hour, the band exited the stage before quickly returning for an encore that was surprisingly lean and mean. They closed the show with “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” a song from Multi-Love that sounded like the Bee Gees playing hard and fast, which was quite awesome. Then the show was over, the lights came on, and everyone walked out to “Mama Said Knock You Out” coming out of the speakers.
Earlier in the evening, things didn’t look so bright for this show. It really seemed like one of the best shows of the year might take place in front of one of the worst crowds. Lower Dens opened the set with a performance moody enough to score a horror flick, but the crowd mostly preferred to talk, laugh and look at their phones.

The band’s van was stolen in San Antonio on Sunday while they were in a coffee shop. They were lucky enough to recover it, but the thieving bastards still got away with some of their gear. But they still made this show. Instead of playing with the usual four members, Jana Hunter fronted the group with just her drummer, some synthesizers and prerecorded bass.

This was a brilliant set, comprised mainly of songs from Lower Dens' two most recent albums, which you should go buy immediately. But they may as well have been competing with a loud track of prerecorded laughs from dead people. This crowd was loud and disrespectful. There were times when Hunter seemed to raise her voice to be heard. It was a very moody, powerful performance. These songs are so cinematic they make you think of villains chasing heroes.

They seemed to win over some of these fools by the end, especially with a particularly jarring guitar solo that concluded one track before Hunter’s androgynous "cousin" (pigtails and facial hair?) greeted her onstage in between songs and started dancing beside her for the remainder of the set.

Hunter then closed out the show a cappella with “All the Best Wishes,” from her solo album, Blank Unstaring Heirs of Doom. With many seemingly unaware of what was even going on, it made for a total freak show. But oh well. At least some of them knew enough to clap and whistle in between songs.
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Jeremy Hallock