Unknown Mortal Orchestra played Brighton Music Hall – 3/2

A sold-out Brighton Music Hall welcomed a diverse collection of psychedelic revivalists for Saturday night’s show, wherein Unknown Mortal Orchestra brought along Foxygen and Wampire for the ride.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s last few Boston shows have been as a supporting act, but Saturday finally granted the group their own spotlight. As openers for noise-rock provocateurs Liars in July and art-pop darlings Grizzly Bear in September, UMO largely kept to themselves and delivered a half-dozen songs with restrained precision. They were certainly competent, but they didn’t leave much of an impression. This time around, there was a noticeable shift in the band’s confidence and stage presence.

Commanding a space half the size of the Paradise and worlds smaller than the cavernous Orpheum, the band owned the stage. Time on the road seems to have shaped them into a more assured live band, and the buzz from last month’s well-received sophomore record II surely couldn’t have hurt. One still wouldn’t call vocalist/guitarist Ruban Nielson talkative, but he did exhibit a kind of quiet command while letting the songs do most of the talking. Joined by bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Gregory Rogrove, Nielson fronted a power-trio to be reckoned with.

Nielson’s guitar playing is one the band’s most immediate assets, especially in a live setting. He often seemed to be doing the work of two guitarists at once, encapsulating both lead and rhythm by deftly squeezing riffs between complex chord changes. His acrobatic fretwork was frequently impressive but rarely showy in a typical guitar-hero sense, accentuated only by the occasionally dip to the floor during instrumental passages. Only during an extended jam at the close of the encore did Nielson get a bit theatrical and thrust his instrument outward over the crowd. By that point, it felt as though he’d earned it.

The contributions of the rhythm section of Portrait and Rogrove are not to be overlooked, though. The two formed a restrained but tight counterpoint to Nielson’s quick strums and bursts of fuzzed-out melody. The band’s recorded output is shrouded in lo-fi haze, but the songs absolutely came alive during performance. Punchier and livelier renditions of “From the Sun” and “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” showcased the propulsive rhythm section, while “So Good at Being in Trouble” was anchored by an especially soulful vocal from Nielson.

Unlike Nielson’s previous band, the notoriously chaotic Mint Chicks, Unknown Mortal Orchestra performances tend to groove more than pulverize. Songs from II and the band’s self-titled 2011 record bounced along with catching rhythms, only bursting into extended psychedelic jams at choice moments. Nielson’s easygoing stage presence combined with the moody lighting and glowing electric candle stage decorations to foster a sort of Zen calm over the performance. Even during the set’s noisier moments, the crowd was still suspended in a relaxed and joyful daze.

A laid-back opening set from Portland, Ore.’s Wampire proved an appropriate mood-setter for UMO, if not for fellow supporting act Foxygen. Interestingly, Foxygen seemed to draw a crowd as large and responsive as the show’s headliners. Wampire’s charmingly dazed dual-vocalist/guitarist approach was a solid showing from a band finding its voice, but Foxygen’s already full-fledged weirdness couldn’t help but steal the show. With a Pitchfork approval behind their appropriately titled new record We are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, Foxygen seem to be building quite a buzz for themselves.

Vocalist Sam France hopped on stage dressed like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who on an acid trip, and proceeded to wow and weird out the crowd in equal measure with his manic energy. The rest of the band wasn’t particularly huge on stage presence, and multi-instrumentalist and second core member Jonathan Rado spent most of the set getting increasingly fed-up with monitor issues, but Foxygen still delivered a performance worthy of their sudden notoriety. Their shaggy, 60s-indebted psych-pop translates exceptionally well to the stage, especially with the sort of frantic delivery they’ve perfected. The crowd was clearly enraptured, even as the technical issues seemed poised to derail the whole thing at any moment. The band held it together, though, and still pulled off a fun set. If the audience’s engagement was any indication, they’re headed for their own headlining tours very soon.

Full gallery of photos here.