Like the gold rush miners of yore, many a rock ’n roll artist arrives in the Pacific Northwest looking for a spark, that creative or commercial break to push their dreams to fruition. On the other side of this equation we find Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who moved to Portland disavowing music (“the industry is bullshit”) and left the city a psychedelic rock sensation.
A product of Auckland, New Zealand, Nielson made a name for himself in the spring of 2010 with an incognito lo-fi release, “Ffuny Ffrends.” The earworm gained swift internet admiration and left a horde of critics searching for its creator. They landed on the unassuming Nielson, who’d slapped the track together in a Portland basement – he says he “fell in love” with the city after visiting an uncle there years prior.
“It really started from nothing,” Nielson said of his career, speaking with Tape Op’s Larry Crane in 2015. “It is a cool ride to be on, I suppose.”
Nielson brought this cool ride to a sold-out Moore Theater last Saturday. Fresh on the heels of his band’s fifth album – the aptly titled V – these PNW gigs begin UMO’s first tour since 2019, which Nielson chalks up to his family taking priority over music. His return is a big deal for fans.
Operating among heavy fog, their silhouettes thrown into stark contour by sodium-like “UMO” lights, Ruban & co. treated Seattleites to the full catalogue on Friday. V standouts “Layla” and “The Garden” made an appearance, as did “Ministry of Alienation” and “Hunnybee” from 2018’s Sex & Food. “Ffunny Ffrends” – just as catchy thirteen years down the road – anchored the set early on, and the encore delighted with a quirky rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” which UMO covered on the Dessner brothers’ 2016 super-compilation Day of the Dead.
Saturday was my first time seeing Nielson in the flesh, and what struck me above all else was the raw purity of his voice. Like the band’s furtive beginnings – one microphone, one Fender amplifier, a $50 audio interface – UMO’s precipitous rise holds an air of mystery. This has something to do with Nielson’s reserved character, and something else to do with the psychedelic quality of his sound. With all those fuzz, octave, and phaser pedals, it’s easy to lose track of the maestro behind the curtain.
Five albums into his career, Nielson has settled into an indistinct space between psychedelic pop, jangly lo-fi, and full-bellied classic rock. His inspirations often jump decades in a single track. But genre disputations fell by the wayside when he sung on Saturday. A good set of pipes, as demonstrated at the Moore, will carry a musician through thick and thin. They’ve carried Nielson to some already remarkable highs, and those of us following his career are eager to see where they’ll lead next.
“the show tonight at moore theater was one of my all time favorites ive ever played,” tweeted Nielson after the gig. “the crowd was simultaneously completely unhinged and completely the chillest… it was so perfect… how do you do it”