They’re killing it. Rockstars. Blowing up. I’m trying to remain objective and professional as I communicate with Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s publicist. It’s an easy transaction- just securing a press pass for their upcoming show at Baby’s in Brooklyn. But I’m legitimately excited. There’s something about UMO that pulls me. Seeing them live is the only way to make sense of it.
Fresh off the release of their third LP, Multi-Love, the Portland-based Unknown Mortal Orchestra seems to be riding a giant, gnarly wave. Like, Laird Hamilton big. It wasn’t always this critical. Things used to be much simpler. It all started with lead singer/guitarist Ruban Nielson releasing their first track “Ffunny Ffriends” online in 2010 with no artist information. They were literally unknown. Now they’re Unknown. Since then everyone with ears and a mouth has praised this band, some attributing their sound to a seismic shift in modern music. People spoke this way about Nirvana. Is this the Millennial’s Nirvana, I ask myself as I email Sam a thank you for the press passes and pack my gear.
It’s after midnight. I’m standing inside of Baby’s All Right with a mass of fans. UMO just played Warsaw, a 1,000 person venue in Brooklyn to a sold out crowd a couple hours earlier. This show is their way to make some room in their tour schedule for fans that weren’t able to score Warsaw tickets. They’re on a 27 show tour, of which 23 shows completely, easily sold out. Killing it. The fact that they’re playing a free show for die hards is a tip of the hat — the first nod to the fact that not even they are clear on what exactly is happening. Things would become clearer 3 days later after a boozy night of drinking and bullshitting with them 2 hours outside of New York City.
Back to Brooklyn. The atmosphere in the venue is equal parts VIP and family barbecue. Everyone is laid back, open and chatty, excited for the second shot at catching UMO and feeling deeply privileged to even be here. How many sneak sets does anyone get to catch after midnight in NYC these days? The show kicks off with a bang- this is a 250 person venue and with a limited crowd it feels as though we’re stealing, taking a piece of music history and greedily gobbling it up in the darkly lit kitchen while everyone is sleeping upstairs. There’s even a pang of guilt. It makes no sense, and maybe that’s why the feeling quickly disappears. Or maybe it was the dancing, the bouncing, the overarching “what the fuck is going on right now”? After the show when I speak with the Jake, the bassist, I learn that they too have no idea what the fuck is going on. We’re all on the wave, no idea where it’s going, how it ends. Fuck the shore. This energy is amazing.
I introduce myself to Jake after the show. Somewhere in the first couple moments of our conversation I blurt out that I think I’m going to Albany to catch their show Sunday night. Jake and I are both surprised and excited by this. I quickly visualize my brake pads, assessing their post-Bonnaroo condition to gauge how the hell I might actually even GET to Albany. Bonnaroo was the last time I saw UMO play, and the 907 mile trek to Tennessee was unkind on my not-so-trusty Trailblazer. They were great there, but catching a show with 100,000 of my closest strangers is very different from chopping it up side stage with the band, and now I want more. Yeah. The brake pads will have to do. I’m not ready to hop off the wave.
Two women (Nicole and Serina) catch me shooting the show and strike up a convo. They’re as stoked to be there as I am. Three beers later, we’re making plans to head to Albany together. Some stuff that can only be described as “Saturday” happens, and then next thing I know I’m pulling off the New York State Thruway with my two new friends headed directly for The Hollow in Albany. The car’s parked, we’re at the door, and the buzz of the pre-show line chatter instantly has us in the zone. Here we go again.
In some “Fonzy” like twist, there’s already three empty glasses sitting on the bar next to an oversized bottle of tequila, which Tommy, UMO’s particularly stand up sound guy, uses to quench our road-tripping thirst. These guys are selling out shows like they’re cronuts and yet we’re sitting at the front bar of the venue they’re playing, casually sipping top shelf tequila on their tab. This sort of casualness won’t last. They’re about to be slingshot into the type of stardom that challenges anyone to remain “normal”.
The energy in The Hollow on a Sunday evening was somehow even more electric than Brooklyn. Albany natives are known for their avid support of independent music and rarely miss an opportunity for a good show. They don’t disambiguate between Sunday and other days. This might as well be New Year’s Eve. Here we go again. My liver coughs. The secret to UMO’s success becomes crystal clear after my third go ’round. These guys are phenomenal musicians. Ruban’s voice is crystal clear, aside from a bit of delay & echo at times — a much welcomed aspect as his lyrics can be hard to hear on the albums. Riley and Jacob are like a pulsing bedrock — staying in the pocket and laying down some heavy foundation. While Quincy is a charmer from behind his keys, adding elements to their live set that have never been heard.
Sound. Blur. Now we’re backstage, prepping Ruban for the interview. I hand him the microphone and before I can explain how to get it on, he’s got it situated, mic perfectly positioned, waiting for me to commence my interrogation. All at once I recall that this was the stated mission of the trip, to interview the quickly ascending rocket ship that is UMO. I draw a blank. I’ve been bullshitting with these guys at shows, over text, at the bar, for an entire weekend. Did I ask all my questions already? I take a deep breath and prepare to prepare to say…well..I’m not quite sure. And just then the manager of The Hollow breaks in and tells us we have to get the hell out. It’s Sunday night. Show’s over. You don’t have to leave, but you can’t stay here. That whole speech. Ruban looks at me blankly- “you know any bars still open in Albany” he asks. Yeah, sport. Sure do.
Downtown Albany is not Brooklyn. It’s not terrible, but with the University of Albany out of session it’s as alive Donald Trump’s presidential bid. But not as tragically comedic. There’s two bars in this entire city that will stay open until 4 AM tonight. We’re at one of them, Cafe Hollywood, seated at an outdoor picnic table positioned inside. There’s no outdoor seating. It’s as if a local home and garden store went out of business, so a few lazy entrepreneurs installed a bar, kept the furniture, and hung out their shingle. The only lasting impression of this place I have is a crumpled up bar receipt. Apparently, it was fun? But maybe not super fun, because we also hit another, less memorable bar. Justin’s is shaped like a train car, with a stage at the far end of the mostly empty drinking hole. Quincy, the freshly added keyboardist, betrays the ho-humness of it all with a bashful smile. He hasn’t been working on this project for five years like the others, and he’s very aware that he stepped into something special. He’s not shy behind his keyboards though — serving up studio elements like the now well-known opening piano riff for “Multi-Love.” He also affords Ruban the ability to step away from his guitar during “Stage or Screen” and snake his way through the crowd. Most notable moments include a jazzy intro/outro solo for “Ffunny Friends” that had the crowd entranced until Riley came in with his heavy kick drum.
I’m unclear how we got to Justin’s. I’m unclear on quite a bit of this past weekend. But I do recall turning to Ruban at some point and with no prompt whatsoever saying “this is it — nothing will be the same for you guys after this tour”. He stared through the empty stage, focused on something beyond view, and cocked his head. How often are we really aware of the forces at play? How often do we stand at the intersection of the past and future, and see what’s behind and ahead of us clearly? I take in the tableau for a moment. I’m excited for these guys. I’m satisfied that this feeling I had, this feeling that they were being carried on a wave, is shared. That they’re equally taken by this force. “Yeah, it kinda feels that way”, Ruban mutters.
Check out my Video Review below:
“Ffunny Ffriends” w/ intro & outro from Quincy Mcrary on Keys
“How Can You Luv Me” w/ smooth dance moves from Ruban Nielson