June 13, 2015


Bonnaroo Standout: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Maritza Navarro for Fuse
Maritza Navarro for Fuse

The mark of a great band is not just being able to play through adversity, but to make it appear like there's no adversity in the first place. At the end of the fourth song, Multi-Love standout "Ur Life One Night" (but let's be honest, all those songs are standouts), Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman and songwriter Ruban Nielson was apologizing for his guitar amp acting up. An illuminating yet unnecessary gesture - he had Friday afternoon's crowd in the palm of his hand by the opening refrain of set opener "Like Acid Rain."

Not too long ago, UMO was touring behind their excellent 2011 debut. It was an album filled with Zappa-indebted, delectably trippy psych rock. Nielson had assembled a three-piece then and was singing through a heavily distorted microphone. He would extend songs well beyond their run time on the album to take wild, mind-bending guitar solos. 

UMO was a band in a sense that there were other players accompanying him on stage, but the focus was singularly upon Nielson's shoulders. Rightfully so —he makes these albums on his own. He is also in his own right a guitar virtuoso and a fascinatingly unique player, as he infuses jazz voicing with carefully hand-picked, vintage tones —finger-plucked analog delays, harmonic effects, and compressed distortions. 

Now, the Portland-based band has expanded to a four piece to include long-time bassist Jacob Portrait, drummer Riley Geare, and Quincy McCrary on keys. No longer does any distortion mask Nielson's ambling melodies and uniquely sweet timbre - his voice is bright and clear, and he sounds better than ever.

Maritza Navarro for Fuse
Maritza Navarro for Fuse

Four years ago, perhaps a guitar amp cutting out would have been far more noticeable. While this is Nielson's project, make no mistake - UMO is a band, and a formidable one at that. The extended jams are no longer just Nielson's time to shine - after an incredible rendition of "How Can You Luv Me" off their debut, Geare took the reigns for a Live at Pompeii-esque drum solo while Nielson calmly strutted across the stage. Maybe it was just to bow out of the spotlight for a minute, or maybe it was out of frustration due to his gear troubles; nevertheless, Nielson does not need to shoulder every ounce of responsibility at this juncture. His albums are great, the players in his band are fantastic, and he knows it. He can allow himself to lean heavily on the talents of his bandmates.

The band again gave way for another member to shine after "She's So Good at Being in Trouble" (how did this song not make the radio?). McCrary, the band's newest member, put on a show by taking the lead on keys while the band hung back in support.

Maritza Navarro for Fuse
Maritza Navarro for Fuse

By the final three songs, the crowd was firmly theirs, arm-waving and all. There were even sunflowers in the air, serving as some sort of visual cue that the band is almost too good for 2015. Perhaps they would have been closer to headline status back at Woodstock in 1969. But maybe it's just a matter of time - their songs are that undeniable. 

The strength of the band aside, Nielson has three albums under his belt now. His catalog is so deep and strong now that he can build a dynamic top-to-bottom set devoid of any fluff or filler. Really, their allotted 75 minute slot might not be enough for this band going forward. And the more and more people continue to see what's going on with this band, the smaller festival stages might not be enough for much longer, either. 


  1. Like Acid Rain
  2. Isolation
  3. How Can You Luv Me (Drum Solo)
  4. Ur Life One Night
  5. The World is Crowded
  6. So Good at Being in Trouble (Key Solo)
  7. Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)
  8. Stage or Screen
  9. FFuny FFriends
  10. Multi-Love
  11. Can't Keep Checking My Phone