Last night was the newborn fall’s first night of jacket weather, a beloved moment when it seems the summer's tyranny has ended and you may never sweat again. Of course that also meant it was also the first night of showing up in your jacket to a full club, realizing that it’s actually pretty hot in there, and holding your jacket awkwardly for the rest of the night. Sigh. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a Portland power trio led by Kiwi Ruban Nielsen, really did pack them in Thursday night. As Nielsen would say later from the stage, their NYC experiences have mainly been “…playing for someone else’s crowd,” so the show had a coming-out party felling to it. But it’s strange to note the difference in effect the band has live and on record. The crowd responded most strongly to a slice of their music that turns out to be less than totally representative.
There’s a developing notion of Unknown Mortal Orchestra as funky, lo-fi hit-makers, and they can certainly work in that mode. “Ffunny Ffriends” came early in the set, creating a solid ripple among the assembled. Live, the scratchy, “old record” feel of the song’s production is muted, its repeating stuck-groove loop amplified even more. Their rhythm section is phenomenal—Julien Ehrich nimbly banging on see-through drums that reminded one of Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, Jake Portrait light but relentless on bass as the lighting scheme made his shirt blink distractingly from red-striped to solid navy. Low-key grooviness is what sticks with you after spinning their debut album, but except for “Ffriends” and ecstatic closer “How Can U Luv Me” (which is classic sounding to the point that its sort of Jackson 5-y), the set was all about guitar heroics. Nielsen’s high, raspy vocals are often compared to T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, but in person his manner is muted and unassuming, hardly Bolan’s sex-wizard from space. So his outlandishness is confined to guitar playing, which turned many songs into surprising, extended psych jams. Extremely competent, but also a little tough to get down to. When the boys sped up and thrashed out for a song like “Nerve Damage,” carrying whiffs of both Flying Nun-vintage Kiwi garage pop and grunge snarl, the difference was split ably and the crowd reaction strong. For now though, and despite the music’s broader charms, their growing number of fans are really just hoping to dance.