Unknown Mortal Orchestra | Mark Thompson photos
Ruban Nielson, the leader of New Zealand’s-by-way-of-Portland band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be: a guitar god, a slick R&B vocalist, or a fusion bandleader. He demonstrated all three skills within the first four minutes of taking the White Stage on Saturday afternoon before a very appreciative audience, though they didn’t quite know what to think when he almost immediately jumped off the stage with his guitar and continued playing a solo while five security guys and a roadie followed him as he went deep into the audience. Guitar god? Check.
Several songs later he did the same thing but without a guitar. All he had was the mic, as he kept singing a sweet love song. Sex-you-up R&B lover man? Check.
Then, a song or two later he conducted the whole band as they chugged into an improvisational freakout that ended with a manic sax solo by his father, Chris. Fusion pretensions? Check.
The band they reminded more than any was probably Steely Dan, not so much in terms of sound but rather ambition. The tricky time and key signatures should indicate pretensions of a less laudable sort, but UMO pulls them off so seamlessly you don’t register them as “difficult,” and there’s a Top 40 vibe to Nielsen’s songwriting that makes you wonder if he would have been a star if he’d come up in the ’70s instead of the ’90s or ’00s. As it is he’s just another indie mensch who tends to get misclassified.
And if it’s any consolation to him, I did see one white dude mouthing the words to “So Good At Being In Trouble,” so obviously Nielsen’s reach is longer than I thought. And when he tried an Elvis move that weirdly turned into a JB move you know he yearns for the kind of pop popularity he thinks he deserves. I think he deserves it, too.