(Photo Credit - Juan Ortiz Arenas)
I did not know what to expect. Unknown Mortal Orchestra at The Fillmore Philly on a Friday night? All of my friends and coworkers but one had never even heard of the band. So, about a week out, I checked the website to see if they changed the venue to The Foundry. For those not from Philadelphia, The Fillmore contains The Foundry; the former at a 2,500 capacity and the latter 450 people. However, they were still scheduled to perform in the main venue.
During my drive down from Shillington, I thought, is Unknown Mortal Orchestra the type of music Philly likes? Not that I claim to know the likes of a city I am still learning about. However, I have seen more than a handful of shows in the City of Brotherly Love. Playing in front of 2500 people would put Unknown Mortal Orchestra on the same playing field as LCD Soundsystem, who I saw at Franklin Music Hall, a capacity of 3000.
My anxiety was high, and because my car is old and has no Bluetooth or aux plug, I could not listen to any UMO during my drive. Instead, I tuned into Philadelphia radio which is considerably better than anything I can pick up at home. I love Classix Philly 107.9 and WRTI Jazz 90.1. Flipping back and forth between the two, I built and kept a vibe through the terrible traffic and slowdowns.
If you plan on going to a show at The Fillmore, prepare in advance for parking. Once you get there, it is terrible. After driving around for nearly thirty minutes, I parked in the heart of Fishtown, about a mile’s walk away from the venue. Thank God it was a beautiful night.
Once in the venue, I was blown away by the number of people and the median age of the audience. How had they heard about this band, and why were they into them? Those two questions may seem harsh, but listening to UMO on Spotify, I have only experienced a mellow, lo-fi, muted “ubiquitous 70s AM radio rock” sound. (I pulled that quote from the PR release for V.) Also, like I wrote earlier in this piece, only one of my friends had ever mentioned Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and he has his Ph.D. in music and listens to everything. You know, one of those friends who listen to more music than they have time to listen to. I always wonder if it is a glitch in the matrix or if time exists differently for them. Maybe the more music you listen to, the longer you exist in the universe. There is no way for me to test this theory, but find a friend who studies music. Their ability to listen, absorb, and remember songs, albums, and eras is beyond humanly possible.
After buying my wife a concert shirt—she has an impressive and growing collection—I found my way down to the front. So, in hindsight, I guess it wasn’t so packed that I could not get three or four rows of people from the front, but once the music started, we were fairly crowded. I noticed small groups of young adults, couples, and a few loners, like me. I saw younger teenagers or pre-teens with parents, wild-colored hair, and various cultures and backgrounds. I even saw a black midi shirt and thought, does this guy know UMO? The bands’ sounds are extremely different, but I listened to both. In fact, the last band I saw was Godcaster, which is very loud compared to Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Fans screamed as the keyboardist snuck onto the dark stage and began a solo. Eventually, the rest of the band joined him and made their way into “The Garden,” the first song on V.
Immediately, I could not believe how many people were singing the lyrics. Not many people were dancing, as I had suspected would be the case. That’s not true; people were swaying. But they also had their phones up, recording and taking pictures.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra went back into their discography and pulled out three songs from II and one from their self-titled debut album before returning to V. However, the band never lost the audience; the fans knew every song as if they had been with UMO since the beginning. I was impressed. These musicians’ skills and musical knowledge came through on their recent release, and I suggested it would find success, possibly as the Album of the Year. However, learning that they already had such a large following was a great surprise, even though it should not have been one.
I listened, mildly danced, and mentally compared the sound to other bands. However, one band kept popping into my head, one I rarely choose to listen to—the Beatles. Some of the poppier songs hit me like the Magical Mystery Tour Beatles. I wish I could explain it. Maybe it was the rhythm or drums. I don’t know. But they kept popping into my thoughts. However, for those who need a little more, I also heard some Əkoostik Hookah. That was when I questioned whether or not UMO could be considered a jam band.
Although “From the Sun” ran into “Secret Xtians,” “Little Blu House” was the first “jam,” at least by my standards. It highlighted a shift in the mood and added a musical element to my list of UMO strengths. There were extended solos and explorations in “Little Blu House,” “Necessary Evil/Monki/Necessary Evil,” and “So Good at Being in Trouble.” Yet, I think the band contained these moments enough not to fall into the “jamband” category because it is a slippery slope once that happens. Haters!
The set break or “end of the show” was not so much a break but a pause. UMO returned after a few minutes and played one of my favorites, “Meshuggah.” A cover from the Godfather of jambands, “Shakedown Street” by The Grateful Dead, followed; the perfect choice because it fits the disco-funk feel of the later parts of the show. “That Life” and “Hunnybee” were the big hits before ending the show with “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone.”
Because I had to write this review, the songs repeated in my head as thoughts and questions continued throughout the following week. I was trying to understand how I could not have known there was such an appeal for this band. I had heard of them and “Necessary Evil” five or six years before. However, I do not have a Ph.D. and cannot consume grandiose amounts of music. Although I’m physically, mentally, and emotionally moved by it, my capacity is only a few bands at a time. I grab hold and learn as much as possible before jumping aboard another bandwagon.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra grabbed my attention during a period in my life when I am pushing for a similar level jump in my career. V will bring them the attention they deserve, and like Spoon’s 2022 tour, the shows UMO is putting on further elevate their newest album. They are out on the road, showing their face and spreading their music. Yet while comparing Unknown Mortal Orchestra of 2023 to Spoon of 2022, there are a couple of significant differences.
Spoon released Lucifer on the Sofa, and from the first song, it showed confidence and an attitude that said, “Listen to us. We’ve been around for a long time, accomplished a lot, and deserve your attention.” I loved it. Especially after Covid. They were ready and wanted to use the time away from live music to make a major statement. I was on board and listening.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is quieter; their album and tour bring a subtler, humble confidence. It’s that Beautiful.Sad Sweet.Broken mantra I brought up in my review of V. The album and their show start softly. It took nearly the entire show until Ruban Nielson’s shyness broke down, and he did a couple of 360° spins while playing the guitar. UMO wants your attention, but they are less assertive about it.
Either way, both bands were putting themselves out there in their way, showcasing their skills, and vulnerability is the key to respect.
I know this is a digression from writing about one concert, but spending time with a band and their music, energy, and atmosphere affects me. At least, I want it to. I want to understand, relate, and use what they offer. Otherwise, why am I listening?
Final Thought: I want to see UMO perform again when I am prepared and know what to expect.
Favorite Songs: “Necessary Evil/Monki,” “Waves of Confidence,” and “Meshuggah”
From the Sun/Secret Xtians
Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)
The Opposite of Afternoon
Thought Ballune/Little Blu House
Ministry of Alienation
In the Rear View
So Good at Being in Trouble
Waves of Confidence
Like Acid Rain
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone