Photos by David Riedel
Tuesday night’s UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA show at T.T. the Bear’s Place in Cambridge had everything a good, dank club show should have: Rockin’ tunes, sound problems and sticky floors.
The low-fi vibe and psychedelic sheen that stretches across the Portland band's eponymous 2011 full-length was faithfully recreated and expanded upon by guitarist and singer Ruban Neilson, bassist Jake Portrait, and newish drummer Gregory Rogove after some early technical issues. As the set opened, Neilson seemed to have trouble getting his pedals to behave, necessitating a probably longer-than-intended white noise intro that left Portrait and Rogove hanging for a moment.
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When UMO launched into the opener “Little Blu House,” the crowd, young, well dressed and surprisingly beard-free, sang along, though how they knew exactly where Neilson was in the arrangement is a small mystery. Live, his vocals are buried in the mix just as on record and felt more like part of the soundscape than something to be listened to intently. (But singing along is fun, so whatever.)
The sound problems returned halfway through “Thought Ballune,” the second song in the set. A loud, nasty crackling came through the PA. After the song, Neilson, the engineer and Portrait had testy exchange.
Engineer: “Check that line.”
Neilson: “You think?” Pause. “Thank you, good night!”
Portrait: “It’s not like this didn’t happen three hours ago at soundcheck.”
Engineer: “Can we continue the show?”
Portrait looked ready to go at it with the sound guy but Neilson fixed the problem and quickly yelped “Bicycle!” The band launched into a bouncy version of the song and was unbothered by crackling PAs and bad lines for the rest of the night.
Like any good trio, UMO sounds bigger than three guys playing one instrument each. Neilson deftly alternates between rhythm and lead and Portrait weaves in lots of countermelody on bass while keeping the low-end thick and meaty. And Rogove: The guy can play.
Guitar fans got a treat when Neilson took a couple extended solos and shredded his way through “Strangers are Strange.” Bonus: He plays without a pick.
The one new song the band performed —- Neilson simply called it “a new song” —- was a little lackluster. Maybe that’s because it was the one unknown, or maybe it wasn’t very good. But it had a UMO-does-Phil-Spector vibe to it that could be cooler in the studio. And whatever the sticky crap was on the floor came off in the rain.