Yuck and Unknown Mortal Orchestra at the Varsity Theater, 07/19/11
The mysterious Portland trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra requested to play with all the stage lights off, thankfully cutting down on the heat building inside of the venue, but making it downright difficult to see what was happening on stage, or to even know a band was playing at all (I walked in during their first song and initially thought that the in-house music was just turned up really loud). But what was lacking visually was more than made up for musically, as the band stormed through a breathless 35-minute set filled with crunchy, psych-pop guitar riffs and a relentless rhythm section. Frontman Ruban Neilson absolutely shredded on guitar throughout the entire performance, leading the songs off on wild, experimental tangents that only added to their initial appeal.
"Thought Ballune" and "Nerve Damage" were both unhinged, fuzzed-out revelations, spiraling effortlessly between noisy thrash and experimental serenity, while "Jello And Juggernauts" had a bluesy, Zeppelin vibe to it that proved to be irresistible. Saying nothing other than thanking the crowd while introducing the next song, Neilson kept the powerful set propelling ever forward, eventually closing with the groove-heavy soul-stomp of "How Could You Luv Me," which ended the performance on an energetic high, even though everyone in the crowd clearly wanted to hear more. Hopefully these guys will get a headlining gig here sometime soon (UMO recently opened for Smith Westerns at the Triple Rock as well), for they have more than earned it.
So, the stage was perfectly set for the classic scenario where the opener steals the show out from under the headliners by playing a blistering set that the 'buzz band' couldn't ever possibly match. But thankfully, Yuck started strong and didn't ever let up, building on the momentum built up by UMO and eventually eclipsing it with their brand of guitar-heavy rock mixed with indelible melodies. They opened with a scorching version of "Holing Out" that sounded absolutely immense in the small room, with the dual spiraling guitars of frontman Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom soaring through the din. After a boisterous rendition of "The Wall," Bloom took time to note that "this is our first time in your fair city," to which Blumberg genuinely added, "it's really, really nice here."
But it was ultimately their music and not their stage presence that would leave a lasting impact on the crowd, as the pensive, emotionally charged "Shook Down" clearly resonated with the swelling audience, as did the boisterous, pure pop-bliss of "Georgia," which made the perfect soundtrack for this humid summer night. "Suicide Policeman," which on record is a bit somber and tentative, exploded in a live setting, with Blumberg leading the band through an emphatic, feedback-laced finish that drew the song out quite a bit, while giving it some extra teeth and breadth in the process.
The blossoming band even threw in a couple b-sides to their set, playing a stirring version of "Milkshake" from the just released "Shook Down" 7-inch, while also playing the flip side of the "Georgia" single, the hazy, "The Base Of A Dream Is Empty." Both songs fit in seamlessly with the set, and gave notice that even their cast-off songs can be killer live tracks. But it was their fiery featured material that really made the set memorable, as the Green Mind-like guitar crunch of "Get Away" absolutely slayed, as did "Operation," which found Bloom taking over on lead vocals while the rest of the band worked up one hell of a racket behind him.
But it was the slow, sludgy set closer "Rubber" that really was the high point of the set, with Blumberg gradually building the tenor and tension of the 7+ minute track before unleashing a wall of discord that fiercely washed over the entire room. It was staggering, and wisely the band chose not to follow it up with an encore that would just appear tepid by comparison, leaving the feedback wailing as they stealthily snuck offstage. Ultimately, the two Fat Possum labelmates both delivered sets worthy of the hype that has been building around them, making the night more than worthwhile for everyone that braved the heat.
Critic's Bias: While I've been enjoying the debuts of both bands, this was my first opportunity to see each of them live--and it surely (hopefully) won't be the last.
The Crowd: The theater was about half-full, but the right people showed up.
Overheard In The Crowd: Repeatedly, while UMO were playing, "Oh my god, there are people up on stage playing right now? I can't even see anything."
Random Notebook Dump: My dad could have been playing drums for UMO for all I know, and I never would have guessed--it was indeed that dark on stage during their set.
The Base Of A Dream Is Empty
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