Unknown Mortal Orchestra — live at Thekla, Bristol
Tuesday 7th May, 2013
I'd heard some tracks by Unknown Mortal Orchestra on BBC 6 Music but no one else I know seemed to be aware of them. When I discovered they were playing in Bristol in the week of my birthday, it seemed like a perfect excuse to hook up with my son Dan -- currently a Bristol resident -- for a chilled-out, father/son, gig-going experience.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) is led by Ruban Nielson (former member of the Mint Chicks) — a New Zealander now based in Portland, Oregon. UMO were supported by Splashh -- a four-piece psychedelic rock band that also includes a smattering of New Zealanders.
The unusual setting for the gig was Thekla – an award-winning venue that's actually a cargo ship moored in the Mud Dock area of Bristol's Floating Harbour. (The ship was originally brought to Bristol as a music and theatre venue by the wife of Vivian Stanshall of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fame.) I'd been aboard the Thekla years ago though I can’t recall which band I saw. (Dan tells me it's more interesting to see gigs there on a stormy winter's night because you forget you're on a boat and are suddenly reminded when the venue starts to sway.) But it was a calm, early May evening when we embarked to see UMO.
Support act Splashh, despite the aptness of their maritime-sounding name, were disappointing. I tried to imagine their songs performed without the arsenal of effects pedals and suspected there would be little left behind to enjoy. The sound was unbelievably distorted. There’s psychedelic and lo-fi ... and then there's just distorted. By contrast, UMO sounded fuzzy in a good way. Ruban, in a leather jacket with a Monkees logo on the back, is a talented guitarist and songwriter and gave an assured performance with solid but unassuming backup from bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare.
Gillam the Younger looked pretty unimpressed throughout the gig and told me he enjoyed the psychedelic cover version encores more than the main set. As for Old Man Gillam, well, I was glad to have witnessed UMO in action. Ruban has a gift for creating chirpy songs with sprightly guitar parts and quirky, sometimes incongruously dark lyrics. Who could fail to delight in the hook ‘... so good at being in trouble, so bad at being in love ...'? The intriguingly-titled The Opposite of Afternoon could, in a parallel universe, have been a lost track by the Young Rascals while UMO’s nearest thing to a hit single, Swim and Sleep, epitomises their plaintive pop sensibility:
‘I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does,
I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide till the end of time
in the sweet cool darkness, asleep and constantly floating away ...’