‘Unknown Mortal Orchestra’ Brings the Funk to Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall was packed to the brim the night of Nov. 21, as a crowd filled with hip twenty-somethings clad in tiny beanies, facial piercings and thrifted Dickies waited eagerly for Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) to take the stage of the legendary venue. The genre-transcendent Portland-based New Zealand band has failed to subscribe to labels since its inception but has often fallen under the general umbrellas of lo-fi indie and psychedelic rock. Headed by frontman and guitarist Ruban Nielson, the show became a family act as he was supported by brother Kody Nielson on the drums, multi-instrumentalist father Chris Nielson on keys, trumpet and saxophone, as well as longtime collaborator Jacob Portrait on bass.

UMO started out the show strong with “From the Sun,” off of 2013’s II, during which the band played an unexpectedly delightful extended solo. This musical interlude allowed Nielson time to run through the crowd, take a drink with the production crew, hop the barrier and run into the balcony before heading back to the stage, all while playing maintaining a hold on his guitar. The high-energy kickoff set the tone for a set filled with unexpected twists and an overall outstanding performance from the band.  

Though this is the European leg of UMO’s first tour since the release of their most recent album Sex and Food, they played a variety of songs off of their five major projects (including 2018’s instrumental IC-01 Hanoi). The band transitioned straight from the first song into “Ffunny Ffrends” from the band’s first album, 2011’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Neilson’s anonymous Bandcamp profile from 2010.

Mid-way through the set, Nielson leaned into the microphone, expressing his excitement at playing at the Royal Albert Hall, cueing an eruption of cheers from the audience. With that, he introduced the next song, one of the act’s most recognizable tunes, “So Good At Being In Trouble”, which had the entire crowd bobbing in their seats and singing along. This marked the shift into the band’s more popular songs off of their previous albums, as well as a heavier focus on Sex and Food.

 

Neilson upheld his commitment to giving a lively performance during the group’s rendition of “Not in Love We’re Just High”, during which he hopped into the audience once again, this time crowd-surfing through the pit. Calling Nielson’s vocal control impressive would be an understatement, as he managed to maintain composure and steady vocals, despite being turned nearly upside-down on several occasions. While the act of crowd-surfing fulfilled the fun and spontaneous vibe, the uncertainty of allowing strangers to told Neilson in their hands took its toll, as lyrics could be lost over the sounds of fans shrieking into the microphone.

UMO transitioned seamlessly from “Not in Love We’re Just High” to the titular track on 2015’s Multi-Love, which had the audience once again dancing and singing along. Putting a more funky spin on the often melancholy track, the band ended their set on a high note, exiting the stage to boisterous cheers and demands for an encore

Sure enough, they soon returned to the stage, finally giving the audience what they had been waiting for the entire night: “Hunnybee”. Once the song’s telltale opening chords came blaring through the speakers, the entire audience leapt to their feet, with fans exclaiming, “I fucking love this song!” One of UMO’s sweeter and more introspective songs with an infectiously fun beat, Nielson’s rendition of “Hunnybee” had the entire audience dancing along. UMO kept the energy high for the last song of the night, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, a fan favorite from 2015’s Multi-Love.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra put on a show like no other at Royal Albert Hall in what was likely a career high for the already accomplished group. The contagious lyrics followed concert-goers outside the venue, as people could be heard singing “I can’t keep checking my pho-o-one,” from the auditorium all the way out to the taxi queue. The mind-bending lighting and sound production, as well as the trippy use of extended instrumental solos, had me feeling like I was having an out-of-body experience. And like what comes with experiencing a euphoric high, the post-concert comedown left me feeling as though my serotonin levels had been depleted, which could be seen on the faces of fellow attendees, chagrined to return to the mundanity of real life outside of the funky multiverse of UMO.