LIVE REPORTWHITE STAGE7/27 SAT
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA
It seemed fitting that the rain stopped just as Unknown Mortal Orchestra began to play – it was certainly the kind of set where one does not want drips and splashes pulling your attention away from the stage. Funnily enough, opening song “From the Sun” features lyrics that seemed much in keeping with the Fuji Rock theme this weekend: “If you need to you can get away from the sun…” And indeed we did, though the warmth radiating from the stage was enough to keep us basking in Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
After a jazzy saxophone opening, it took a moment to adjust to the current of fuzzy guitar that underpinned Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound, a choice that gave cohesion to the whole set. Front man Ruban Nielson brought a restrained falsetto that segued in and out of bluesy vocals. On tracks like “Necessary Evil” it initially felt like this restraint was excessive, perhaps because the song channels Stevie Wonder so much that one anticipated something bigger.
Nielsen himself courted both comments of “kawaii” from the audience as he waved bashfully out over the White Stage, and also whoops and cheers after hopping off stage and marching through the crowd, not once but twice: the first to head to the sound booth to do a shot with members of the audience during “From The Sun”, and the second time to leap around at the front for “So Good”.
Stage antics aside, Unknown Mortal Orchestra brought a completely different brand of prog to the White Stage in comparison to the previous day’s King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard performance. The whole set featured what can only be described as dirty synth – not dirty in a grungy or distorted sense, more than it conjured a collective memory of something just a little out of reach, a little risqué. That sense of nostalgia came up again in “Ffunny Ffrends” with funky chord progressions that melted into the bass pop and smoulder of “Necessary Evil”. It was here where that growly undercurrent rounded out into golden resonance – all sonic hardwood paneling, tan leather and whiskey – before the song ended in an unexpected sax squeal that reminded me a little of moments on David Bowie’s “Outside” album.
There was much that was unexpected to love here: meandering synth (yes, it was in everything), muted jazz trumpet, drum flourishes – the later courtesy of Nielsen’s father and brother – and lyrics which pulled on heartstrings: “We’re not in love, we’re just high/ We’re not in love, we’re just halfway out of our minds” and mention of love trashing Nielsen’s heart like a hotel room – something we can all resonate with.
Closing on the upbeat disco of “Hunny-Bee” and “Phone”, Unknown Mortal Orchestra left the stage to uproarious applause. It was the kind of show that rewarded the attentive listener and wowed new ones. It played out well on platform like the White Stage, but can you imagine it somewhere more intimate? That would be one to see.